Language Learners: 15 Useful Skills You Get from Speaking a Second Language
Learning a new language enriches your life in so many ways.
I didn’t start seriously learning another language – Spanish – until my early 20s. I had no idea what to expect, and I never imagined all of the ways my life would change as a result of learning a language.
A huge change has been all the skills I’ve picked up from the process of learning languages. These are skills I’ve applied to my life, my blog, my work and my travels.
If you’ve been learning languages for a while, you may be surprised by some of the skills you’ve been building without even realising it. And If you’re new to learning languages, discovering all the skills you’d develop on the way could add extra motivation to start your first language learning mission.
With that in mind, here are fifteen of the skills you’ll get from learning a language…
1. You’ll Discover Amazing Techniques for Boosting Your Memory
It will come as no surprise that learning a second language requires you to memorize new words and phrases. Two techniques in particular form the backbone of many a language learner’s study program, and are the ones I recommend and use myself: Mnemonics and Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS).
A mnemonic is a technique you use to retain information through association. For example the French word for apple is “pomme”. As an English speaker, this reminds me of pom poms. So to remember the French for apple, I could imagine a cheerleader dancing with apples in her hands instead of pompoms.
Some of us were lucky enough to get exposed to different types of mnemonics when we were young, although the potential is hugely untapped, with just a few examples. In school you might have learned “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” to remember an important date, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” to memorise the first letters of the colours of the rainbow, or “30 Days Has September, April, June and November…” to remember how many days a given month has.
But these barely scratch the surface.
Spaced Repetition Systems are also powerful because they prompt you to recall information just prior to the point at which you’re likely to forget it. As a result the information is quickly committed to your long term memory.
If you check out the lists of publicly available SRS cards for popular programs such as Memrise and Anki, you’ll see it is by no means limited to language learning! You can use SRS to memorize the names of all the countries in the world, elements on the periodic table, medical terminology, dog breeds and many more things. Talk about handy!
2. You’ll Improve Your Listening Skills
Listening isn’t just for language learning. Having good listening skills is important no matter what language you are speaking, and can help you communicate more effectively with the people around you.
It turns out that all the time you spend listening to podcasts, dialogues or music actually builds up your listening skills. According to one study (Lapkin, et al 1990, Ratte 1968), foreign language learners have been found to have better listening skills and sharper memories than their monolingual peers.
Listening is not only one of the core skills for learning languages, but it is also a primary skill in life as well!
3. You’ll Be Better at Math(s)
At first glance you might think that Maths and languages don’t have too much in common, but there is actually a connection between the two.
According to one research study published in the University of Michigan’s Language Learning journal (Armstrong and Rogers, 1997), students who studied just one semester of a foreign language for just 90 minutes per week scored significantly higher in maths and language arts.
Not only that, based on a 2007 study in Massachusetts, The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has stated that “children who study a foreign language, even when this second language study takes time away from the study of mathematics, outperform students who do not study a foreign language and have more mathematical instruction during the school day.”
And back to point #2, since seeing the power of mnemonics in language learning, when I was still a Mathematics teacher after learning a couple of languages, I even helped my students learn very complicated equations they needed to memorise, using quirky mnemonics that I picked up thanks to language learning.
That’s pretty amazing! But it doesn’t stop there. It turns out that maths isn’t the only subject you will be improving with the study of a second language.
4. You’ll Be Better at Studying Anything
Whatever subject you choose to learn, it seems your ability to study is enhanced by learning a second language.
The same 2007 study in Massachusetts went on to state that learning a second language “is an exercise in cognitive problem solving”, which is “directly transferrable” to other areas of learning.
When I was looking for ways to enhance my study of languages, I came across methods such as the Pomodoro Technique, which improved my ability to focus on the task at hand.
These skills can be used for more than just language learning and no matter what course of study you decide to pursue, the study skills you develop will serve you well.
5. You’ll Be Better at Tests
It seems logical that improving your memory skills and your ability to study will have an impact on test scores too.
In fact, I’ve come across such an extensive list of research papers and studies that show a connection between language learning and academic performance it’s almost ridiculous!
From language learners outperforming monolingual test takers on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in the U.S. (College Board 2003), to significant differences on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, learners of foreign languages “consistently outperform control groups in core subject areas on standardized tests, often significantly” (Armstrong & Rogers 1997, Saunders 1998, Masciantonio 1977, Rafferty 1986, Andrade, Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989).
Clearly learning a second language builds skills with test taking! But academics aside, what about skills in other areas? Does it affect “soft” social skills?
It turns out it does…
6. You’ll Learn How to Be More Outgoing and Sociable
When I started learning languages I quickly realised that a vital component to practising a language is to get out and meet new people.
I wrote about the importance of meeting new people in a previous post, and if you think about it, it makes sense that learning and practising a language will help you become more sociable.
To practice your language, you’ll need to speak with native speakers. Odds are, you don’t have a room full of close friends who are native speakers in your target language waiting to practise speaking with you. So you’ll have to get out and meet some new folk.
The process of meeting language conversation partners is basically the same as meeting anyone. The skills of being outgoing and sociable are directly transferable to other areas of your life.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, Americans fluent in other language improve global communication. I couldn’t agree more.
For me, meeting new people from around the world is one of the main reasons I study languages. It has had a direct, positive impact on my life.
7. You’ll be More Creative
Often, learning to communicate in a new language is as much an art as it is a science. When you don’t know the right word or phrase you often have to come up with creative ways to express what you want to say using alternative methods.
This type of “outside the box” thinking is great for stretching your creative brain muscles. In fact, several studies indicate that individuals who learn a second language are more creative than those who do not (Bamford & Mizokawa, 1991).
And one of the areas where creativity shines is in figuring out the ways to solve problems. It just so happens, that is the next skill that learning a second language will help you develop.
8. You'll Get Better at Problem Solving
There are few situations more anxiety-inducing than trying to express something urgent in a new language when you don't have the vocabulary to say what you need to say.
The creative thinking skills we just talked about works well when working to solve problems. In fact, I’ve found that learning a language is essentially an exercise in problem solving and coming up with solutions. I talk a lot about developing creative and unique “hacks” when studying languages, but isn’t “hack” just another way of saying “solution”?
According to one study, language learners show greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher order thinking skills (Hakuta 1986). So, the more you practise solving language problems, the more you’ll excel at solving other problems in your life.
Plus, as a bonus, you learn ways that other cultures and people solve their problems which gives you a whole new perspective!
That perspective is important, because it ties in with the next skill you develop, which is related to being tolerant of others.
9. You'll Learn to Be Tolerant of People Who are Different
When you learn a new language or visit a new country, one of the things you have to adapt to is thinking of yourself as the “foreigner” in the room. Suddenly you are the person who is different, and it changes your perspective on what it means to not fit in.
Foreign language learners are demonstratably more tolerant of differences among people (Carpenter & Torney 1974). Another study states “The positive impact of cultural information is significantly enhanced when that information is experienced through foreign language and accompanied by experiences in culturally authentic situations” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004).
By experiencing the challenges of being in a different environment surrounded by people you may not completely identify with, you learn to develop empathy for those who also experience those challenges.
10. You’ll Learn to See Things from Other People’s Point of View
Learning a language helps you step into the shoes of people different to yourself – and that gives you empathy.
By learning a new language, you discover how an entire population expresses themselves and their thoughts.
Tim Doner, a well known Polyglot from New York, stated that he learned Hebrew and Arabic so that he could better identify with those on either side of the conflicts in the Middle East. Understanding a language is the first step in understanding a culture, which allows you to begin seeing people from other people’s points of view.
11. You’ll Learn How to Blend in When You Travel
When I visited Egypt during my Arabic language mission, I found that people easily identified me as a foreigner, and would often only talk to me in English, even after I started speaking in Arabic. After a careful study of the behaviours and customs of local Egyptians, I emulated those behaviours in myself, even changing how I kept my hair and the shoes I wore. Soon enough I was getting treated less like a tourist and found it easier to converse and communicate for extended periods in Arabic.
Studying a new language may not turn you into you the super spy polyglot, but it does expose you to cultural nuances and behavioural cues that will help you blend in when travelling to that country.
12. You’ll Become More Perceptive
My experience of blending in while in Egypt, and many other places, was born from taking time to really observe the people around me and not just letting the surroundings wash over me.
When you study a language, and work to emulate cultural behaviours, you gain skills in perception and awareness. You pay attention.
I’ve found that exposure to other cultures and people make me more perceptive to the unique qualities of my own culture and how it has shaped my behaviours. I gain a higher appreciation both for where I’m visiting, but also where I’m from.
And this appreciation also extends to my native tongue…
13. You’ll Improve Your Native Language
Until I started actively studying other languages, I had only a passing awareness of the parts of my own language that I took for granted as a native speaker.
It is like only having seen the colour blue your whole life, and then discovering the colours red and yellow. Suddenly you can see the whole spectrum of colours and understand how they relate to each other.
By learning a new language, you gain a better understanding of your own language. According to the Impact of Second Language Education the study of a second language significantly increases first language skills with reading, vocabulary, grammar and communication.
14. You’ll Boost Your Nonverbal Intelligence
Nonverbal intelligence refers to your ability to recognise visual patterns, connections and sequences.
When you study a language you are creating connections between words, phrases and ideas, and it forces you to remember “visual sequences” when looking at new words or reviewing flashcards.
My theory is that when you are learning a language and trying to communicate, your brain is actively seeking out relationships between different sounds, words and ideas. And, in my experience, this type of activity forces me to exercise the parts of my brain related to developing visual awareness and nonverbal intelligence.
However you slice it, language learning is a serious boost to your brain!
15. You’ll Be Better at Lateral Thinking
Studying a language often forces you to come up with solutions that are not immediately obvious, and to solve problems in ways that aren’t necessarily “logical”.
It turns out this is the definition of lateral thinking — the ability to use creativity to solve problems in an indirect or “not obvious” way, outside of traditional step-by-step logical patterns.
According to one study at the University of Edinburgh, studying languages improves the “elasticity” of your brain, and its ability to perform complex and creative functions. In fact, this study goes on to state that knowing a second language can actually delay the onset of Alzheimer's or dementia by up to 4 years.
It turns out that learning languages actually keeps your brain young. Talk about some serious benefits!
So… What Are You Waiting For?
The evidence in favour of learning a second language is pretty convincing.
You’ll have a better memory, be more creative, and have more social confidence. Plus, you’ll improve your empathy and ability to take other people’s point of view.
What are you waiting for? You have nothing to lose and 15 amazing skills to gain.