If you are thinking of studying abroad, you’re probably aware that we live in a brave new world where borders and other barriers mean less than they used to. This will influence the choices a person makes when sketching out his future professional trajectory. While a large portion of the worldwide business community speaks some form of English, there are many benefits to being able to handle a conversation in another language, too.
Whether as an enhancement to your career or for other reasons, there’s a world of difference between using Bing translator or trying to work through an intermediary and actually being able to understand a few words. European teens typically learn to speak at least one other language fluently while still at school – in Switzerland, knowing French, German, Italian, and English by the time you’re eighteen is far from uncommon. In the United States, by contrast, fewer than 1 percent are proficient in a foreign language they did not learn from their parents.
Different Levels of Fluency
While there are a number of excellent (and less excellent) programs that anyone who’s willing to put in the time can follow, how well does this really teach you a language on a conversational level?
Working through a computer course before setting off for foreign shores is certainly recommended, as this will teach you some basic vocabulary and provide a feel for the grammar. At this point, you’ll probably be able to figure out what someone is talking about without actually understanding more than the broad strokes of what they’re saying. This is surprisingly helpful, but really no more than a foundation for real competence.
Pronunciation and understanding accents are one of the most difficult things to learn, and can only be taught partially in a classroom. The only real way to become conversationally skilled in a language is through practice, which is why going abroad is such a good option.
Finally, there is a level that is no longer merely linguistic: understanding a culture well enough to connect effectively with foreigners. This kind of sensitivity is about more than holding your chopsticks correctly, but about knowing how difficult subjects should be broached, when someone is saying “no” without actually verbalizing it, and how deeper feelings and attitudes are expressed.
The Professional Benefits of Becoming Bilingual
On the job market, an accountant or engineer, no matter how qualified, is still only an accountant or engineer unless they can offer some kind of unique value proposition to potential employers. Speaking a foreign language on a reasonable level can provide the additional boost to make your resume stand out from the crowd.
Linguistic barriers are a major reason why companies struggle to effectively sell themselves or expand abroad. Top interpreters charge hundreds of dollars per hour because communication is about so much more than the meaning of words. There can be a great deal of difference between what a sentence says and what it means, and this gap can easily mean the difference between negotiations succeeding or failing.
It’s also a mistake to select a particular language to learn without a little thought and research. For instance, someone’s first thought might be that French is only useful in France and Belgium, while almost half of Africa can speak it as a second or third language. Equally, going out on a limb to learn a lesser-known language such as Tagalog or Bengali can be worthwhile. Many people study Spanish or Arabic, but there are enormous benefits to being one of only a few people in an industry who’s fluent in a niche language.
Making a Commitment
Learning a new language is not easy for most people: it’s frustrating, occasionally embarrassing and it can be difficult to track your progress. The initial stages are the hardest, so anyone considering travel as a way to pick up a second language will have to carefully weigh the demands against the probable benefits.
Going abroad means throwing your hat over the fence: in order to get your hat back, you now have to figure out a way to the other side. For language learning, this will mean many hours which will often be boring and apparently pointless. Make a promise to yourself that you won’t quit as soon as you learn the alphabet or how to order at a restaurant. With dedication, you will one day find that you’ve become near-fluent at some point without celestial trumpets sounding or ceasing to make the occasional mistake, and every new language becomes easier to pick up after the second.