The benefits of learning multiple languages
Learning languages can open up the world for you. The world is going through dynamic changes, which are occurring at a fast rate. This has caused more business and work opportunities to be available across the world—which could be utilised better by the people in developing countries if they are multilingual. In today's increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, mastering language skills gives one the opportunity to engage with the global community in more meaningful and productive ways.
There are companies in both developed and developing countries that operate in several countries. McDonald's Corporation is the world's largest restaurant chain with 37,855 outlets in 119 countries, as of 2018. Pizza Hut runs 16,000 restaurants in 100 countries. Uber has taxi services in more than 400 cities across 60 countries. Plus, there are international financial and development agencies operating all over the world.
Since 2000, BRAC, Grameen Bank and ASA are running programmes in other developing countries in Asia and Africa and even beyond. There are at least eight foreign banks operating in Bangladesh. Russian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese institutions have also formed alliances with Bangladesh to build power plants, roads, bridges, factories, etc.
In order to work in the aforementioned organisations and platforms, it would be hugely beneficial to learn different foreign languages. I personally know many folks who are working in different countries, and who are more successful due to the fluency and familiarity with the local language and culture.
There are various individual benefits to learning foreign languages in addition to obtaining work opportunities in countries all over the world.
One of the most rewarding aspects of learning a new language is the scope of communicating with people of other cultures. It feels good when you see someone trying to communicate with you in a language that's foreign to them—it shows in them a desire to understand you. Knowing a language makes you "local" no matter where you are located. You learn about other societies, cultures, historical events and traditional norms through the language. Imagine a person from a foreign country speaking to you in Bangla.
Being multi-lingual provides an instant advantage over your peers, and helps you stand out. The demand for bilingual and multilingual professionals is growing exponentially around the world. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of US job postings specifically geared toward bilingual candidates more than doubled. Language skills may also lead to higher salaries and promotions, especially when an organisation has multiple branches globally. With such language skills, you can easily get ahead of others in your field.
There are cognitive benefits of learning languages, too. Research has shown that speaking more than one language improves memory, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It also improves your neural network over time. To maximise this benefit, it is best to start learning languages from a young age, since during that time brains are still developing and they can make language connections better than adults.
While learning a foreign language, you learn to make mistakes and correct them yourself. In the process, you come out of your comfort zone. You build an amazing sense of accomplishment. When you converse with someone in his/her native language, you tend to become more confident and courageous.
A person learning more than two or three languages together switches from one language to the other very quickly. This process builds your multi-tasking capacities. My own experience shows that an individual can learn six languages simultaneously, moving from one to the other fairly easily. The capacity increases as one practices.
Once you master other foreign languages, you learn about the customs, traditions and social practices of other societies. Thereby, you recognise the good and bad practices of one another. This helps to appreciate your own practices, widens your horizon which helps you to learn from other societies and eventually helps you to apply them in your own social practices.
When we travel to a foreign country and know the local language, it becomes extremely convenient and advantageous. For example, in China, it is very difficult to travel if you know only English or your native language. But knowing Mandarin will make your journey less problematic. You also get to learn more about the Chinese places and people—the trip becomes much more insightful and fun. New doors of opportunities may open up.
Bangladeshi students, teachers, workers, journalists, businessmen and government agents will benefit tremendously by learning multiple languages. Parents need to encourage their children to learn languages. In Bangladesh, several universities teach foreign languages, for example, Brac University, IUB, NSU, Shanto Mariam University, etc. Dhaka University's Institute of Modern Languages (IML) teaches a number of languages. To make things more convenient, there are also private organisations offering language courses. In this era of technology, one can learn languages from their phones or computers through interactive web-based tools and apps, e.g. Duolingo, Lingvist etc.
There is no age limit to learning languages. Anyone, young or old, can attempt to learn as many languages as possible. The learning itself is a very rewarding process—I have a first-hand experience in that regard, being fluent in six languages, and I am still learning more at more than 70 years of age! You can do it, too.
Dr Salehuddin Ahmed is the former Pro-Vice Chancellor of BRAC University and former Managing Editor of The Daily Star.
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