Many English speakers, in fact, feel no need to study other languages. And even English speakers who travel a great deal often get by without needing to learn another language.
But we need to ask ourselves if the monolingual state is truly good for us.
On an economic level, we can see that it is not. In the United States and Canada, studies consistently show that those who speak more than one language earn more than counterparts who only speak English. It’s difficult to get comparative results with non-English speaking industrialized countries, however, because such a large portion of their populations is multilingual. In fact, monolinguals are a minority in Europe.
Studies consistently show that being multilingual is good for brain health and development in children and adults. Those who speak more than one language score higher on standardized tests and are better at multi-tasking. They are also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. They demonstrate better memory, better decision making and are more perceptive.
Learning another language also makes us better at our own language. It causes us to think about grammatical structures in our mother tongue that we tend not to be aware of. For example, English grammar is simpler than that of many languages. Our regular verbs vary little and our language is gender neutral. When we learn French, Spanish or German for example, suddenly English subjects and direct objects make a great deal more sense.
Learning another language can also make us more empathic. We understand the challenges of trying to converse in a language that is not our own and we become more patient with those who are not fluent in English.
Language is also an important aspect of culture. It reflects the values of its people. When we understand the native language of others and know how to think in their language, we have a greater appreciation of their way of life. And that means we understand the people themselves better. Indeed, this is one of the greatest joys of learning another language. We can sit down with those from other parts of the world and talk, laugh, eat, discuss our differences and share our common humanity.
For centuries, English speakers governed much of the world and even forced other people not to speak their indigenous languages. Other colonizers did the same. The result is that the number of languages in the world is actually decreasing. We see now that this impoverishes us all.
Fortunately, languages in decline can resurrect. The Irish, for example, in a spirit of cultural pride have put great effort into preserving their language. Today, the number of Gaelic speakers is significantly increasing, as is the volume of writing in this once-endangered language.
It is never too late to learn another language. In fact, it is easier to do today than it has ever been. There are many very effective online and computer courses, and language immersion programs are accessible for many of us.
We are a global community. As we learn the languages of our neighbours we not only benefit ourselves, we benefit the whole world. As multilingual Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.