Story at a glance
- Many successful people in history spoke multiple languages.
- Other languages are crucial assets in business and diplomacy.
- “There are so many benefits to language learning that go beyond the purely linguistic,” says one expert.
Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg is known for being a polyglot.
The famed scientist Nikola Tesla also electrified others by his fluency in several languages.
Multiple language skills helped actress Audrey Hepburn connect with others across the globe as a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. She liked to say, "For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone."
Learning a second language can help achieve that.
Bonjour! 你好 hola…You’d have to learn an estimated 6,500 greetings to cover all the languages in today’s world (from the most widely spoken Chinese with a reported billion-plus speakers, to the rare, endangered languages reported by UNESCO spoken only by a handful of people.
But even if you know just one additional language other than your own, it’s a crucial asset, especially in today’s global economy; technology such as international video conferencing can bring overseas clients into your office. But experts say, can you really connect and close the deal if you can’t speak their language?
“Nearly one in four U.S. employers surveyed acknowledged losing or being unable to pursue a business opportunity over the singular lack of foreign language skills,” according to a recent report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “Those unable to fill this need may find themselves falling behind in the global market,” states the group.
Connecting with others is why Virginia Commonwealth University’s director of the School of World Studies, Mark Wood, urges students to acquire a second language. “It opens the door to understanding and provides the sine-qua-non for establishing relations of mutual concern and collaboration,” he says. “Learning a second language is an expression of one's commitment to the equality and humanity of others. In a world in which governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations conduct their affairs in diverse languages and cultures, the employment market is global, and migration from one region to another is increasingly the norm, the ability to communicate in more than one language is vital to empowering our students to do well in all aspects of 21st century life.”
University of Virginia graduate Mingi Lee, who speaks Korean, Spanish and English, agrees. “Professionally, knowing a second language allows me to communicate with people in order to prevent miscommunication and to allow people of different cultures to interact with each other cordially," Lee says.
Perhaps a best example where people of many languages thrive together is at the vibrant Speak! located in Charlottesville, Va., near UVA. Founded by Christina Ball, who holds a doctorate in Italian from Yale University, this 15-year-old language and culture learning center offers customized language programs in 22 languages for personal and professional enrichment, as well as an online English program to support the communicative needs of international students and professionals working in the U.S.
Ball tells Changing America a main reason she created Speak! was "to help build bridges between cultures and nurture empathy and understanding between individuals with different histories, perspectives and challenges.”
"Cultural awareness is more necessary now than ever, in a time when we need to build more bridges than walls, more empathy than hate," she says.
Ball adds, "There are so many benefits to language learning that go beyond the purely linguistic. The ability to simply translate is not as important, when it comes to human relationships, as making an effort
to understand another person’s language and culture. Even just learning how to greet people in a foreign country with the appropriate phrase, gesture, expression speaks volumes."
Marc Hagen of Charlottesville, who speaks Dutch, agrees. "When you do this and have some knowledge of language of a country, you broaden your appreciation for that country, and in turn, the world. You are more easily accepted, and people are more open when you speak their language. It shows a level of interest and immediately, greater connection."
Dawn Gaither, a former lawyer turned English language coach, has experienced this firsthand. "When I order an Aperol Spritz at a local cafe in Cannaregio in Italian, I want my server to think, 'Oh she knows she’s in Italy; she knows we speak Italian here, and she took the time to learn about us and to be like us, so she is us!' And when that moment happens, it’s a beautiful thing," says Gaither.
"Professionally, learning another language means I’ve got loads of empathy for my students,” Gaither adds. “Learning a language while teaching a language puts you right there on the ground with your student. I love when my students breathe a sigh of relief when they discover that I’m a language learner, too.”
"A world filled with multi-language speakers is a much better world," she believes.
Jessica Marroquín, a doctoral candidate at UVA, adds, "Foreign language learning is fundamental to the personal and professional development of global citizenship.” She was raised bilingual in Spanish and English. She was born in Ohio and grew up in Mexico, raised biculturally by an American mother and Mexican father.
“As a teacher of Spanish, I believe language is the path to building truly cross-cultural, deep, and meaningful relationships,” she adds. “Teaching a language means learning about and incorporating culture, history, society, politics and belief systems in our daily lives. Second language instruction does not, and should not, occur within a vacuum, but be embedded with both cultural curricula and skill-building.”
"Learning a new language is like adding a color, and a beautiful color to the spectrum of colors that exist in the universe," says retired University of Virginia Professor of Phoniatrics Aliaa Khidr, who now teaches Arabic at Speak! Learning a new language, she believes, is "a door to a new culture and many new blessings."
In addition, research studies have confirmed the benefits of learning a second language to improving brain development — no matter what age you start. It's also especially helpful in boosting cognitive development in babies and young children.
The renowned scientist Nikola Tesla said, "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration." Although he may have been referring to physics, perhaps this can also apply to the good energy that may result when people connect through language; for Tesla, who is reported to have been fluent in eight languages, has also stated, "..we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them.... each of us is only part of a whole."