Can a foreign language be life-changing?

Can a foreign language be life-changing?

A foreign language can completely transform your life and you will be amazed at the world of opportunities that can suddenly open up before you if you take the right time and effort to study a new language.

Apart from the direct daily experience of using the language, learning a foreign language will bring incredible changes in all aspects of your life. Whether it is meeting new friends, reading a fascinating book in its original language, finding greater appreciation for your culture, or improving your social skills, the changes that come from learning a language make it really useful. The decision to start (or to continue) is something you will not regret. Here is why.

You can have richer and more memorable travel experiences.

If you like to travel, learn more than one language or have a basic minimum, it will be very useful. Thinking that English is enough is not always correct. Not always the person in front of you can speak English. In my case, French is useful in several countries, German is similar to Dutch, which is also useful in South Africa, since Afrikaans is a mixture of these languages. The similarity of Italian with Spanish opens many doors. Not only does it make it easier to communicate with the locals or understand the signals on the spot, but it also simplifies the dialogue with other travellers and makes the experience richer.

On my first day in Indonesia I stopped a gentleman to ask him if he could recommend a place to eat something. I did not speak Indonesian very well, but I did my best to make myself understood. To my surprise, the gentleman not only appreciated my effort by filling me with compliments, but he invited me to his house!

You can make friends from all over the world.

When you learn a language, the opportunities to make new friends both inside and outside your country are immense. The best part is that you can make friends with people who see things from a different perspective, and you can learn about their country and culture.

Are you looking for friends who speak your target language? Then why not start with your network of friends, colleagues and family? Ask at the office, at home, at the pub, at the next family reunion or on social media. It's as simple as asking if anyone knows anyone who speaks French, Portuguese, Japanese or Spanish. Once you find the right person, see if they are interested in a language exchange to speak in both languages. If you live in a larger city, you should definitely look to see if there is a meeting for fans of your target language who meet regularly in your city.

Or why not try hosting on Couchsurfing? Invite travellers from all over the world to stay with you for free; you can practice your language skills with interesting people and, who knows, develop lasting friendships that could make it much easier to find a free bed and friendly people next time you are abroad.

If you can't find any opportunities to practice locally, don't worry because there are actually many incredibly useful resources that you can touch with a mouse click to find contacts from all over the world, as you probably already have done using and interacting with your language exchange friends.

You can find new job opportunities.

In an increasingly globalized and competitive market, employers are increasingly looking for bilingual candidates. A published employment trend survey showed that 9 out of 10 head-hunters in Europe, Latin America and Asia say that being at least bilingual is crucial to success in today's business environment. A second language not only helps to increase long-term earning potential, but also opens up a wide range of long-term career prospects in the years to come.

You will learn more about a different culture.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning a foreign language is the study of the differences between an overseas and national culture.

As an Italian, I have experienced many differences with the culture in England. When you ask for food or anything you want in an English restaurant you have to be much more direct than in Italian. For example, when it comes to ordering a drink in England, you might hear the customer ask, "could I have a beer, please?”

In Italy, if the server heard such a polite question, it would be surprised. That's because the average Italian would simply say, "Una birra!" - a beer.

It sounds rude when translated into English, but it's perfectly normal in Italian. Although seemingly trivial, this example serves to show that cultural differences are often all in the details, and as you proceed with the journey of acquiring a foreign language, it is really fascinating to get to know them!

You can find a fantastic assortment of new TV programs, music, books and movies.

Outside of travel and work, learning a new language can lead to a serious change in the way you spend your free time. If you love reading, a good starting point for finding books in a foreign language is the search for bilingual novels.

Do you want to study the target language through music? A great place to find popular music in your target language is the iTunes store. Scroll to the bottom of your iTunes window and change your location in a country that speaks your target language, then simply search the top rankings of that country for your favorite music genre.

Do you prefer to listen to the radio? Just Google "streaming + [country] + radio", for example "Japanese streaming radio", and you'll find a long list of websites that stream local radio stations online. Another tip is to remember that Google is a location-based search engine. If you want better results for your searches, click on the "settings" icon to the right of the Google search results page and click on "Advanced Search". From there you can change your language and country settings to better match what a native speaker in your target language might have - try it, you will immediately get tons of relevant results from the chosen country.

Are you more into movies or TV shows? If you are looking for a good foreign film to watch, go to IMDB. You can order movies by popularity, country or language. Watching movies or TV shows in a foreign language can be a bit of a challenge. Don't worry, though. If you are just getting started, start watching movies in your target language with subtitles in your native language. Then, as you progress, switch to using subtitles in your target language. When you are ready, watch foreign movies without subtitles. It's good exercise and it's fun!

You can improve your empathy.

Empathy is the feeling of understanding and sharing another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings.

Key behaviours of emphatic people include cultivating curiosity about strangers, challenging prejudices and discovering commonalities, experiencing another person's life, listening carefully and opening up. These behaviours strongly overlap with the process of learning a foreign language and opening up to a new culture, so they will become much easier to develop once you start taking language learning seriously.

I remember moments when I was travelling in Germany when I felt completely overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated and even ashamed by my level of German. It is hard to say that you really understand or share someone else's feelings, but these days every time I see someone struggling with Italian I can think back to my stress with the language in Germany.

You can develop willpower.

Willpower can be easily improved simply by using it. The more you can take self-control in everyday activities, the more self-control you will have.

This is good news, because as language learners, whenever we do not feel like studying the target language and we do it anyway, we can improve our self-control.

Any willpower developed by your language studies can then be applied to whatever else you are trying to achieve to get in shape, quit smoking or reduce your ice cream consumption.

These are just some of the reasons why language learning can change your life and is incredibly rewarding. The simple fact that you can talk to someone in a language that you did not learn as a child is exciting and helps you become a better person every day.

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer Language Exchange