So many of the people who make it their goal to voluntarily learn a language are well aware of the possible benefits. Multilingualism can be a plus for employment, and psychologists will not hesitate to champion the benefits of a bilingual brain. When I made the commitment that I would learn a language to fluency, I had a vision for the end goal, but what I didn’t realize is that so many of the benefits arise not from arrival at the end goal, but from the learning process itself.
Whether the goal is to become conversational or to be able to conduct research in the target language, the benefits of the process will emerge. Of course, the perceived positives will vary from person to person, but the following are some of the unexpected happy surprises that I experienced, and you may experience them as well.
1. A better relationship with long-term goal-setting
One of the best things that can happen when working toward a huge, vague goal is that arriving at the goal becomes secondary, and the satisfaction of the process becomes the main driving force.
What’s great about language-learning is that benchmarks are subjective, and everyone who learns a language has a different definition of fluency.
“What is fluency?” is one of those sticky academic questions that will never be resolved. Luckily, in my opinion, working toward your personal definition of fluency is a lot more fun and useful than debating the definition of fluency.
In terms of long-term goal-setting, the process can become stressful and failures heavy if the focus is primarily on how much better life will be when the end goal is reached. It was language-learning that taught me to accept each step as essential for moving forward — an invaluable life lesson that radically improved my relationship with all of my long-term goals.
2. Failure can no longer be a foe
If I had ruminated over every mistake, every embarrassing moment that I’ve experienced during my time learning languages, I would have stopped a long time ago. The sheer number of mistakes that must be made to improve in speaking a language is so astounding that if every one of them were a stone that must be carried, the burden would outweigh the benefits.
Luckily, the process of dropping the stones and forgetting about them becomes almost second-nature when the alternative option is an increasing weight of negativity. The sting of mispronunciation, the frustration when a word is forgotten –— these moments lose their punch when automatic acceptance of mistakes becomes the norm.
There are many means by which a person can learn to accept failure with grace and refrain from making it a problem. Language-learning, in my opinion, may be one of the most effective ways of lessening the heaviness of inevitable roadblocks.
3. Exposure to more memes
No one will ever be able to appreciate every meme that is ever birthed on the internet, but language-learning is a doorway to a completely different internet world, with completely different (and probably equally as entertaining) internet memes.
For example, I recently came across a meme that gained traction in South Korea — a meme that revived once-popular singer Rain’s 2017 music video, “깡.” It poked fun at the singer’s attempts to remain relevant and “cool.” The video gave rise to countless dance parodies, and if nothing else, the meme is a reminder that netizens — regardless of nationality — can all be equally as ruthless and silly. Such is the strange unity of meme culture.
4. Lessening of social anxiety (or, at least, an opportunity to face it)
There has been a long-time internet phenomenon that involves people joking about their uncomfortable interactions with strangers, or the skewed perceptions of the world that comes along with social anxiety. Sharing and joking in this way seems to lessen the seriousness of interactions-gone-wrong.
Language-learning can be a means of lessening the emotional weight and horror of public humiliation. Like I noted earlier, failure can no longer be a foe, and neither can the embarrassment that comes along with perceived public failure.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been to a formal language-exchange, but simple interactions with native speakers can be reassuring for those who tend to shy away from social interaction with strangers.
When learning any language, there is a certain threshold where the help of native speakers is needed for further improvement. So many language-learners both struggle with and delight in the social opportunities — and potentially awkward situations — that arise during language exchange.
At the very least, native speakers can be the ones who remind language-learners that they’re doing just fine, that they aren’t being held to a standard and that it isn’t that serious. There is a heaviness that comes along with textbooks, flashcards, and fear of failure that native speakers can dispel, and perhaps this is one of the greatest reasons to learn a language if you’re someone who finds the prospect of speaking to strangers absolutely terrifying.
5. An extensive online language-learning community
Before I started learning a language, I didn’t realize that people who learn languages for fun are everywhere online. They flock together, wielding flag emojis to indicate target languages, languages-in-progress and languages spoken fluently. There are debates about language-learning methods, the quality of certain textbooks, the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of certain language-learning apps and talk of the triumphs and struggles of language-learning.
It is not just about resumes or the practical considerations that come along with navigating life in a foreign country. It can be a hobby that brings a lot of people joy — as seen by the extensive communities that follow the famous polyglots Steve Kaufmann, Lindie Botes as well as many others.
The sense of community might be the best unexpected benefit of learning a language, but the benefits that you encounter along the way may be completely different. Pick up a notebook and pen today and seek out internet resources, new memes and helpful strangers. In time, the benefits will unearth themselves.