7 reasons to learn a foreign language

It’s two in the morning. I’m sitting in my home office, staring at the infographic and trying to pull my thoughts together. From time to time, my eyes wander around the room, as I wait for some sort of magic inspiration to hit me. But what hits me, instead, is the oddly-timed realization that virtually all the books, objects, CDs and devices surrounding me are not in my native language, but in English.


Slightly baffled by that, I take a quick tour around the house and continue to look into the English / Portuguese ratio around me. Guess what, English wins hands down.

It always has.

I didn’t choose English so much as it chose me. Somehow it crept its way into my life and ended up shaping my education, my interests and my career. Today I make a living out of teaching English, writing textbooks and educating teachers. English has become so intertwined with who I am that now it’s hard to take a step back and be able to objectively describe all the ways in which it has influenced my life.

But then again, I don’t have to. Just take a good look at this infographic:

So what’s in it for you?

Like me, you probably smiled and nodded in agreement as you read the infographic. It’s reassuring to know that speaking a foreign language can improve your career prospects, boost your intelligence, spice up your social life and broaden your horizons. Whether or not you have experienced those benefits first hand, you know that the facts and figures in the infograph make a lot of sense. There isn’t much left for me to explain. What I can do to help you, though, is put on my teacher’s hat for a few moments and show you ways in which learning English can change the way you look at learning in general so that you have a better shot at thriving in today’s ever-changing world.

When you learn a foreign language,…

1. You realize that learning is organic and unpredictable.
I speak very little French, but I know a handful of fairly sophisticated phrases and sentences that I picked up naturally from songs. This means that I can say, for example, “The plane landed on the runway” in French (Thanks, Celine Dion), and still fumble over numbers, days of the week or even the verb être. Learning a foreign language has shown me that we don’t always learn things sequentially, moving from simple to complex. The process is far, far more complicated – just like today’s world. Learning a foreign language can show you that.

2. You realize that there’s more to learning than logic.
I don’t know exactly why the plane on the runway song line struck such a chord with me. It might have been the way sur la pist sounded. Or maybe I associated pist with the Portuguese word pista. Or perhaps it was the wistfulness of the melody coupled with the surprising restraint in Celine Dion’s voice singing in her native French. Or none of that. It’s hard to tell. What I do know is that, unlike what we’ve been traditionally brought up to believe, you learn a foreign language with your heart as much as with your head. The stuff you read, hear and, above all, feel will trigger off learning processes that you can’t always describe, control or explain.

3. You realize you can be your own teacher.
Some of the most successful foreign language learners I have ever met were self-taught. My mother, for example, taught herself English by looking up the words to her favorite Beatles songs in a cheap bilingual dictionary. I myself moved from beginner to mid-intermediate by listening to music and reading my aunt’s old textbooks. So, trust me, you don’t always need a teacher. If you accept that, you’ll be better able to cope with the ever-increasing learning demands of the so-called information society we live in. Once I read somewhere that the illiterate of the twenty-first century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn. If this is true, literacy will soon be synonymous with self-sustained and self-regulated learning, even if the process is initiated by a teacher.

4. You realize that you learn better by making connections.
When you learn a foreign language, you’re constantly comparing it to your mother tongue, whether or not this is encouraged by the teacher, the method or the textbook. It’s an integral part of the process and even though you may not always be aware of it, you’re always contrasting the two languages, drawing analogies (“Hey, we also have this vowel sound in Spanish!”) and trying to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the differences (“What’s this present perfect thing again?”). These skills can help you get your brain around anything you set out to learn. Anything under the sun.

5. You learn how to cope with vagueness and ambiguity.
If you learn a foreign language, you will inevitably be out of your depth from time to time. There will always – and I say, always – be an unknown word, a complex sentence, a cryptic paragraph or an impossible listening, no matter how advanced in your studies you are. When you’re a language student, you quickly learn to accept this reality. You don’t lose sight of your terminal goal (=learning) because you stumbled along the way. You just move on.

6. You make peace with your own mistakes.
At school / college, getting things wrong usually means getting a lower score. So you’re constantly encouraged to show teachers how much you’ve learned and not making mistakes is the best way to do it. Then you graduate, find yourself a job and continue to avoid making mistakes at all costs. After all, a big blunder can cost you your job or even destroy your career. When you learn a foreign language, however, you quickly realize two things. First, no mistakes, no learning. Period. Second, it’s not the end of the world if you get something wrong – your interlocutor will probably understand you anyway. And you can always rephrase, ask for help or even resort to mimicry. To thrive in modern society, as I said in item 3, you have to be willing to get things wrong before you get them right. Language learning can show you how.

7. You realize learning takes passion.
Perhaps the single greatest benefit I derived from learning a foreign language was realizing that if you truly like something, you’ll manage to learn it somehow, even if the odds are against you. And trust me – I’m not speaking for myself only. I have been in the business of teaching English as a foreign language since 1990 and I have it seen it happen time and time again to a very wide range of students: younger, older, senior citizens, housewives, young professionals, top executives, dyslexics, hearing /visually impaired students. Nine times out of ten, those whose succeeded had one thing in common: genuine interest in the language.

Thank you for reading.

12 thoughts on “7 reasons to learn a foreign language”

  1. I used this post with my upper-int students today – thought you might like to know that teachers are not the only ones who can benefit from reading your blog 🙂
    After looking at the infographics which Kieran Donaghy also posted on his blog http://film-english.com/2012/10/15/the-benefits-of-learning-languages/ I asked them to come up with 7 reasons of their own. I then gave the students your 7 reasons – just the headings – and a lively discussion followed. They particularly liked the other two. I asked them to read the whole post for homework.
    Thank you for an inspiring post!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Leo, good to know that your students were able to benefit from this post, too. Thank you for your support, as ever.

  2. Wow! I have to start my comment by expressing how emotinal I got by reading this post. It’s clear that you love languages, learning and teaching them. Learning and teaching languages is my passion too. I started with English, as most brazilian children. I became an English teacher and after years without learning languages I moved to Argentina to study Spanish, it was the first language I learned as an adult, so it was a completely different process. (can’t stop studying, now it’s French) It has helped me immensely as a language teacher. I discovered that I can and I must be my own teacher (that’s something I always tell my students now) and I totally agree with the fact that we learn with our hearts as much as with our heads. The expression “by heart” seems to have a lot to do with that. When I know a song by heart, for example, it is probably because it is meaningful to me.
    Well, congrats on this amazing post!!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Luisa, thank you so much. I got emotional writing it, too!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Marcos, thank you! Glad you dug that one up – it’s been so long since I wrote it!

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