The main reason most students come to Boston is to improve your English, but why bother? Why study a foreign language? Although studying a foreign language is challenging, it also benefits your mind, your academic performance, your ability to appreciate other cultures, and your career.
First, studying a foreign language actually makes you smarter. Studying another language teaches you how to learn a language, so picking up the next one becomes easier. You can transfer skills from one language to another, even back to Japanese. But language learning improves many other skills. It is associated with improved listening, attention, memory, flexibility, intelligence, creativity, and spatial, analytical, and problem-solving abilities. It might also help keep your mind sharp in old age.
Because it improves your mind, the study of other languages naturally improves academic achievement. Students often list foreign language courses as some of the most valuable courses they took in college. Knowledge of foreign languages supports studies in a wide variety of subjects, from Anthropology to Zoology. But its benefits are more basic than that. Children who have studied a foreign language do better on tests of language arts and mathematics. Foreign language learning is even associated with an ability to form scientific hypotheses. And the longer you study a foreign language, the stronger your skills become.
The cultural benefits of learning other languages are obvious. The world is full of languages other than Japanese. Japan now has a population of about 126 million. In a world with a population of about seven and a half billion, Japanese amount to less than two percent of all human beings, and that percentage is shrinking.
International travel is a lot easier and more pleasant when you know a foreign language. You can avoid the tourist path and talk with people whose lives are completely different from yours. You are more likely to win the trust and friendship of people whose languages you know, even if you know just a little. As 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.”
Studying another language opens your mind and improves your cultural understanding. Think about how many newspapers and books you can read, how many movies and television programs you can watch, and how many websites you can visit when you know another language. Studying another language involves much more than learning grammar and vocabulary. It lets you discover a new world, a new way of seeing things. A different language is a different vision of life. The study of foreign languages does not just make you a more cultured person: It makes you a better person. It expands your view of the world and makes you more respectful and tolerant by lowering the barriers between people caused by fear and distrust.
Even if you are not interested in the outside world, knowledge of foreign languages makes you a better Japanese. With the immigration of more foreigners into Japan, you will need to adjust to changes in your society. An ability to talk to foreigners and gain knowledge of the outside world makes you a more responsible, a more effective, a more well-rounded citizen of Japan and the world at large. And beyond that, as the philosopher Goethe observed: “People who know nothing about foreign languages know nothing about their own.” Knowledge of a foreign language gives you a new perspective on your own language, and knowledge of a foreign culture gives you a new perspective on your own culture.
Maybe nothing I have argued so far impresses you, but the study of foreign languages has very practical benefits: It can help you get a job. Foreign language skills make an employee more valuable. An increasing number of businesses work with companies and customers in other countries. They need workers who can communicate in various languages and understand various cultures. Companies cannot be globally competitive without employees who have strong foreign language skills. American companies have committed many mistakes when trying to market their products overseas, mistakes that could easily have been avoided by people with better language skills.
- When an airline wanted to advertise its new leather first-class seats in Mexico, it translated its slogan “Fly in Leather” as “Vuela en cuero.” Unfortunately, that sounded like the Spanish for “Fly naked.”
- Pepsi’s slogan “We bring you back to life” caused a panic in China, where people read the slogan as “We bring your ancestors back from the grave.”
Language learning is hardly quick and painless. Even so, should you continue your study of English and other languages? Yes! Stick with it. Ganbatte kudasai. You should realize the benefits of all the time and effort you have invested, and whatever you have already learned will serve as a foundation for further study. Learning a foreign language is a continuing struggle, the project of a lifetime, but one that will benefit you, your community, and your country.