Why (and How) You Should Learn a Foreign Language

One of my greatest loves, when I travel, is challenging myself to interact in the local language, even if it’s a language I’ve never spoken before. If nothing else, I try to learn “Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you” and of course, “I’m hungry.” This is why I believe everyone should learn a foreign language.

There is something about being able not only to speak, but actually to communicate in a completely foreign language that makes my entire experience in that country clearer, deeper, and more authentic. It brings those people and that culture to life, a life I would not get to experience otherwise.

Related: Want to Live Another Life? Learn a Foreign Language

On top of that, since I’m from the USA, most foreigners are completely blown away that I can speak their language, or that I attempt to in earnest. The whole world knows that “Americans” speak English. ONLY English. And I love breaking that stereotype. I want to shatter that stereotype.

If we want to be citizens of the world and move towards peace and tolerance, one thing we can do to make progress in that direction is to learn other languages. As travelers especially, we have a great opportunity and responsibility to do that.

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Halloween in Peru
Playing a game with kids in Peru on Halloween 2011 (in Spanish)
Italians at Oktoberfest
Making friends with Italians (who don’t speak English) at Oktoberfest 2008

3 Ways You Can Learn a Foreign Language

1. Rosetta Stone 

Rosetta Stone comes either in a set of CDs to upload software onto your computer, or a downloadable version that you can get online. It moves you through one section at a time, culminating in a test at the end of each level, implementing:

  • Reading
  • Writing/Spelling/Typing
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Conversation – not “live” but this really tests what you’ve learned! You have to experience it to understand
  • Images – this is one of the ways that Rosetta Stone is set apart from “traditional” memorization/translation ways of learning a language

I have used Rosetta Stone for two languages: German and French. I do recommend it. If you time it right on Amazon, where you can find the best prices for it, you can get entire sets of Levels 1-5 in one language for under $300, which is less than the price you would pay to attend one semester of a college course (which won’t get you nearly as far).

You can also get it cheaper if you opt for the download version rather than the actual box that they send you (it’s all the same product anyway).

Sure, there are several ways to do it cheaper or even for free, but here’s my take on that. With Rosetta Stone, you know you are getting a program that is tried and true, has excellent reviews, and is “the world’s most trusted language-learning software.” There’s a reason for that acclamation.

It’s a solid product, and if you actually do it the way the program intends for you to do it, then you will learn.

Do you find that if you pay for something, it makes you more motivated to do it? For example, that’s why I pay for my gym. So I’ll be motivated to go to my yoga and pilates classes rather than “do them at home” which, who are we kidding, I just don’t do. If I pay for it, I will be there. Maybe you need to pay a few hundred dollars to actually get your attention. If that’s the case, try Rosetta Stone.

As a language student, I have tried many things to learn foreign languages, and while Rosetta Stone is a great start, it can only get you so far. Let Rosetta Stone be a stepping stone for you, a gateway into the language of your choice. Then when you finish the program, you know it’ll be time to GO and immerse yourself in that language. Immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language.

The greatest thing about Rosetta Stone is that you can start right now. Right. Now.

Related: Pimsleur Method Review: “Language Learning on Steroids”

2. Study Abroad

I simply cannot say enough about the power of studying abroad. Not simply for learning a foreign language, but for truly LIVING. There is nothing like moving your life overseas to a new culture to give you a brand new perspective and bring to the surface so many things you didn’t even know about yourSELF.

Studying abroad changed my life, and it was the best thing I ever did, all three times (Costa Rica, Italy, and Brazil, and I’m not finished yet).

You will never learn more in a classroom than you will by inserting yourself into a study abroad opportunity. And guess what, age doesn’t matter. If you are interested in even the slightest to study abroad, YOU MUST GO. And go learn a foreign language through a study abroad program (there are SO many). Each one is an incredible opportunity to travel abroad in a structured manner that essentially sets everything up for you. Way too many people pass up this unmatched opportunity.

Related (Update 2018!): One Month Study Abroad in France: I Can Speak French Now!

Costa Rica Host Family
With my host family in Costa Rica 2004
learn a foreign language
With friends in Italy
Brazil study abroad learning Portuguese
At school in Brazil

3. Duolingo (FREE App)

If you have not heard of Duolingo, stop reading this right now, pick up your smartphone, and download it. This app is unbelievable, and the reason it’s unbelievable is that it’s completely FREE.

It works similarly to Rosetta Stone. Side by side, Rosetta Stone is better for several reasons, including the unconventional method of learning that they use (which is actually better for your brain), as well as its challenging tests. It is more complex, based more on conversation rather than translation, and gives better scenes and contexts than Duolingo.

Duolingo is a much more basic method of learning, and it implements:

  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Writing/Spelling/Typing
  • Speaking
  • Images (not in the same way Rosetta Stone uses them)

There are countless levels to each language, and the app developers are constantly updating, which means even when you pass a level or a section, they will go back and add to it, giving you a reason to go back, meaning that the amount you can learn is probably endless.

The fact that it functions on your smartphone is invaluable because you can open it up and practice/study/learn (play!) with it at ANY time that is convenient for you. Standing in line at the grocery store, riding as a passenger in someone’s car, in the waiting room at an appointment, anywhere that you have even a few minutes, you could be spending that time learning a foreign language.

No more excuses, this one is free!

The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language and Being Multilingual

Like I mentioned previously, you can achieve a greater connection with the local people and culture of your host country when you can actually communicate in the local language. I detail a great example of this in my post How I Won a Free 5-Course Meal at a 5-Star Restaurant in Mexico.

There are many benefits beyond just the obvious connection with the people through the spoken word. An article by the Huffington Post entitled 6 Multilingual Benefits That You Only Get If You Speak Another Language is food for thought to round out why you should learn a foreign language, including how it can help you in your career, your family, and more. Also, The Benefits of Bilingualism Abound, an article on the Rosetta Stone website, details how “bilingualism appears to offset age-related losses in certain mental processes.”

And beyond that, I’d love to hear from YOU. If you speak another language, what are the benefits that YOU have noticed? If you don’t, what language are you going to learn, and when are you going to start??

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10 replies on “Why (and How) You Should Learn a Foreign Language”

Thanks for the tip on Duolingo, just started Spanish and am waiting to read your free Nicaragua itinerary. Spent 3 months in Costa Rica and learned only a few sentences. Much improvement is needed. Keep up the good work.

Oh this is so tempting! I always try to learn hello, goodbye, and thankyou in the language of whatever country we visit (we gave up with Czech!) but otherwise my only other language is a little french from school days. I understand more than I can speak but even my comprehension isn’t fantastic.
My husband is one-and-a-half lingual, as he likes to say. English is not actually his mother tongue, but he virtually stopped speaking his mother tongue (Afrikaans) when he was about 8 and moved to Australia, to the point that he now has to stop and think if he wants to speak in Afrikaans, and does so with an Australian accent. He can understand it just fine, and can speak it relatively fluently when he wants to – it’s just no longer natural to him and he makes mistakes!
It would make sense for me to learn Afrikaans (my in-laws still speak it all the time – they would speak it to their boys growing up and the boys would reply in English! – also I have many South African friends and there are lots of South Africans in Australia) but I think if I really set out to learn a new language it would be Spanish. I just think it’s such a pretty language, and it’s all over the world (unlike French and German, the most common languages taught in Australian schools). People keep saying how Mandarin will become a much more important language for Australians to learn (because of our close trade ties to China), but ugh, that would be SO hard to learn as an adult! I feel like I’d have a head-start if I decided to learn French properly, seeing as I already have a foundation, but it’s such a relatively useless language (sorry French people! haha) I think I’d lose motivation unless I progressed quickly. Italian is another possibility, it’s another language I find very pretty and there are a lot of Italians in Australia. There’s not a lot of Spanish-speaking in Australia, although I do have an El Salvadoran friend (on Facebook – he now lives in France!) I could practice my Spanish on! My primary school French teacher could speak 5 languages… we thought she was amazing!
You’re right though that nothing helps you learn a new language like living in the country. I’ve never lived in a non-English-speaking country, but my sister had a French friend who lived in Australia for a year at about age 16, and by the end of the year she said she was beginning to think in English. I also have a German friend who lived in Australia for a year or two as an au pair, and I only knew her about the last 6 months she lived there and her english was great, but by her own admission it was awful when she first arrived. It has been kind of fascinating watching her messages on Facebook after returning to Germany and seeing how her English has deteriorated (marginally) – and then rapidly improved during a 4 week holiday back to Australia!

Such is the nature of learning a foreign language, if you don’t use it, you get rusty! But if you continue to travel, meet people, keep up on Facebook, you have a good chance of keeping up your language skills to the point where it wouldn’t take you long to just get right back into it.
Spanish is a great language to know because it is so useful in the Americas! It’s easy to learn and I would encourage you to take it up!

Yes, I totally agree! I speak rusty French (I’ve never lived there for an extended time) but I am trying to teach my kids French, too. We’ll be moving into Canada soon, so it’s helpful there, BUT I believe in knowing another language. We watch French cartoons/videos online and I read books to them in French, and also (try) to sometimes only speak and ask them question in French. It’s hard when I feel I’ve lost a lot of it myself, so I’m not as confident. I’ve tried out duolingo and I love it, it’s such a fun little game!

That’s amazing. Good for you for teaching your kids French, Sarah! I do think it’s a shame when a bilingual parent “lets their child decide” whether or not they want to learn a language. Children aren’t wise enough to make that decision, and as adults I see many of them wish they had learned it while they had the chance. Keep it up, no matter how “bilingual” you feel!

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