Why Learn a Second Language in the Age of Smartphones?

Why learn a second language in the age of smartphones? Can’t we just ask Google? Isn’t that enough? Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned (at least in certain ways), but I believe there are more reasons for learning a second language than just because of nostalgia for a past in which modern technology didn’t exist. Until we get to the point where we can just download information into our brains à la “The Matrix” internalizing a second language and making it our own is still the best way to go.

Back in high school (just as the internet was really starting to come on the scene) I took four years of Spanish. (It wasn’t until college that I started taking French and totally fell in love with the language.) Now, I wasn’t entirely fluent after four years by any means, but it gave me the opportunity to be able to carry on simple conversations with friends that I made while on a short trip to Mexico. Sure, I felt like a child as I spoke my halting and broken Spanish, but I had the pleasure of making a connection with people who have an even more limited (if not nonexistent) understanding of English.

Several years later I started learning French and decided to move to France for a year to teach English. I primarily wanted to take my French to the next level and really experience life in France- and not just as a tourist. This was an amazing experience for me as I went from pretty decent school French to being able to understand and carry on conversations with several native French speakers at once. (Now I think school French is great, because without it I would have been really, really lost. But, it’s hard to beat complete immersion in a second language country to really force your brain to take your language abilities to the next level.) At first I had a lot of difficulties understanding regular speech as it was quite fast and full of slang and contractions that I wasn’t used to. Just imagine what an English learner thinks “whatcha’ doin’?” means when all they know is “What are you doing?” (pronounced very clearly and slowly). This may give you an idea of how I felt at first.

I finally felt like I had made it over my language learning hump and really started moving into true fluency when I realized I was able to respond quickly and be a part of a conversation with several native speakers. Before that I would often mull over a good response for awhile before feeling able to answer, and by that time the conversation had moved on and I no longer knew what everyone was talking about. Another big moment for me was when I was able to make a simple joke in French that didn’t just rely on slapstick comedy. It’s much harder than you might think if you’ve never tried it!

All of that to say that some main reasons for learning a second language in the age of cell phones is that it enables you to travel and communicate with people in their own language, have experiences from within other cultures, understand (at least some of) the nuances of the culture and language that aren’t available just by being told about it, and gaining a new, more evolved identity as someone who can cross cultures. Learning another language gives you the means of thinking in new ways and seeing the world from other points of view. It helps you to be more understanding and compassionate for other cultures as well as see your own culture from a different viewpoint. It helps you to stretch yourself beyond who you are now.

Here’s a sampling of other benefits from the research in a more straightforward bullet point fashion (from ACTFL: The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages):

  • Language learning helps students to develop their reading abilities.
  • Students who study foreign languages score better on standardized tests (including the SAT and the ACT).
  • Students who study foreign languages perform better at the university level.
  • Language learning improves cognitive abilities and may even offset age-related cognitive losses.
  • Bilinguals have better memory skills.
  • Bilinguals have stronger problem solving abilities.
  • Students who study a second language have a more positive view of the language and/or the speakers of the language.
  • And many more!

Now, returning to my first question: Why learn a second language in the age of smartphones?  The clearest answer is that language is living and a part of our minds, bodies, and cultures. To truly be able to understand, communicate, and connect with a person of another language and culture requires that you step into and internalize their language and culture. While you may never fully understand all of the language and culture of another people group the experience will change you and open up new doors of possibility. It will open your eyes to a different way of seeing and experiencing the world. This is something that no piece of technology, including smartphones, can do for you. It’s something that you have to do for yourself.

Ultimately, the best way to find out the benefits of learning a second language is to find out for yourself. Start (or continue) your language learning adventure today! If you are interested in learning French, check out my online course. I am also offering classes in Missoula starting in September.

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