The advantages of speaking a second language
The majority of people in the UK cannot speak a second language, while most Europeans are fluent in at least one language other than their own. Rather than laziness on the part of the British, what it may come down to is that people in the UK don’t need to speak another language very often. As a comparatively small country, variations in English are minor dialects rather than distinct languages: one language ‘fits’ everyone. When travelling abroad, native English speakers encounter few problems: many of the people they will meet while on holiday will speak a decent standard of English, if only to cater for the needs of the tourist.
But is this narrow perspective a good thing? In recent years, several studies have been conducted into the case for being multi-lingual. The research shows that there are many benefits of speaking additional languages. Having a second language appears to have a very positive impact on your brain, improves your creativity and increases your awareness and cultural understanding.
The Irish personality Benny Lewis who has made a business out of promoting the learning of multiple languages, suggested earlier this year that there are about 15 useful skills to be acquired from speaking a second language. These include improvements in maths, developing more confidence, becoming more perceptive and achieving greater lateral thinking abilities.
More rigorous academic research has shown that learning a second language slows brain ageing and could, consequently, delay the onset of dementia by a number of years. An important study was conducted at Edinburgh University and published in the US journal, Annals of Neurology, in 2014. The research was based on a study of 262 subjects first undertaken in 1947 when they were aged 11 and again between 2008 and 2010.
The conclusion was that bilinguals performed significantly better than predicted from their baseline abilities, with strongest effects on general intelligence and reading. The researchers claimed that their results suggest a positive effect for bilingualism on later-life cognition, including those who acquired their second language in adulthood.
The Huffington Post published an article in 2014 stating that bilingual people have better cognitive flexibility, in that they are more able to cope with a new or unexpected circumstance than people who only speak one language.
Is there really an advantage in the world of business for people who speak a second language or is that what secondary school teachers tell you to motivate you to learn French? It is true that speaking a second language will make your CV more competitive, and it could mean that you get paid slightly more. In the world of international business at TAEFL, we believe that language and culture go hand in hand: if you can speak the client’s language, it is much easier to build rapport, trust and honesty in a relationship.
A key to being successful in international business is to understand the role of culture, which affects the way in which business is done in every country. Taking the time to learn the rudiments of that culture, and respecting it when engaging with others, will mean a lot to prospective clients. We spoke to some of our TAEFL team to find out what they thought about language and culture.
Elena, our credit analyst, has Italian as her mother tongue and speaks fluent English. She thinks that the main advantages of speaking another language are that she can easily live in a foreign country: it helps her to understand more about her own language, and gives her more opportunities to meet new people and cultures.
One of our account managers, Natalie, can speak both Mandarin and English. The best thing about it for her is being able to communicate with more people than she might otherwise be able to do. As she noted, “It can have a negative side on the occasions when I understand something that I wish I hadn’t!”
Mary, one of our directors, said that speaking Spanish on a New York building site has allowed her Irish nephew to win friends and settle in to the Big Apple!
“Speaking different languages makes you adaptable” according to Hussien, an account manager at TAEFL. “It’s great for business if an exporter knows some basic vocabulary. It can help conclude a sale as, by the time you’ve found an interpreter, the opportunity may well have passed. Globalisation is leading to the integration of cultures, and knowing more than one language will help you communicate effectively and open up the door to build relations with more businesses.”
So the real question is whether the benefits outweigh the indisputable fact that you can get by in the UK without making the effort of learning a new language. We have highlighted the significant advantage that it gives to individuals, both for their health and overall intelligence, and in the business world. While it is often a challenge for some people to learn a new language, it is worth that effort as they reap the rewards that come with more extensive opportunities.
As the world becomes more globalised, the people and businesses who prove to be the most skilled and adaptable will be able to cope with changes and achieve the greatest success internationally.