5 ways learning a second language will make you a better person


This article is part of the new Mic series "Enabling Empathy Through Travel." See the previous post here.

"Would you like to speak a second language?"

Ask this question to a random person in the street, and they'll probably reply, "Sure! why not?"

But that would also be their response were you to ask them, "Would you like to own a pet monkey?"

Second language skills and pet monkeys are both cool things to have. Yet most Americans have neither.

Why? Because the acquisition and maintenance of languages and monkeys require a large investment of time, energy and money. And as cool as these things are, the coolness factor alone can't justify an investment of such magnitude.

But second language skills are more than just a cool thing to have. Learning a second language will also make you a better person.

As someone who has learned five foreign languages, I can assure you this is true. My old monolingual self was way crappier than my current hexalingual self.  

Here are five ways learning a second language will make you a better person:

1. Learning a second language will make you more intelligent

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In high school, I was obsessed with the fantasy video game Morrowind. Part of its appeal for me was the ease with which you could "level up" your character's abilities.

For example, you could walk into a shop and trade in a few orc scalps for an enchanted amulet that increased your intelligence score by three points. With enhanced intelligence, you could handle all the challenges of the game much easier.

As absurd as the premise of a magical, intelligence-enhancing amulet is, it does reflect the real world in two important ways. First, with slightly higher intelligence, you would indeed be able to handle the challenges of life much easier. Second, there are things you can do to enhance your intelligence.

Unfortunately, Walgreens doesn't hold any inventory of magic amulets. Research confirms, however, that the following three activities lead to functional and structural changes in the brain: exercising, learning to play a musical instrument and learning to speak a second language.

That's right — as one article from the Atlantic summarized:

Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences; ... they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information.

Learning a second language can even slow down cognitive decline in your Golden years.

In fact, one study found that bilingual patients developed dementia an average of 4.5 years later than monolingual ones. What's even more interesting is that this Bilingual Effect on delaying dementia was was independent of education.

So maybe it's time for you to retire that Xbox and brush up on your Spanish! Trust me, your future brain will thank you for it.

2. Learning a second language will make you more likeable

Being smart is great, but it can only get you so far in life. To really get ahead in life, you need to get people to like you.

Now this may come as a shock to you, but a lot of people outside of the United States don't particularly fancy Americans. In general, they find us arrogant, phony and completely oblivious to the goings-on of the rest of the world.

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That's why I love playing the old "dumb American bait-and-switch" trick whenever I meet native speakers of one of the second languages I speak.

Here's how the trick works:

First, I introduce myself as an American and ask a bunch of eye-roll-worthy questions about their country.

"So, like ... in France do you guys, like ... eat french fries at every meal?"

Then once the person has written me off as a complete dolt, I suddenly switch to speaking their native language with a near perfect accent.

I'll never get tired of seeing that double-take face.


"Wait, what? You speak French? But Americans don't learn languages. Are your parents French?"

Instantly, the person's perception of me flips like a pancake. The same person who, moments earlier, was looking for the escape hatch from our conversation is now looking at me like I'm the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

Dennis Van Tine/Star Max/IPx/AP

Why the sudden change of heart?

Because people like you much better when you speak their language, especially if you can do so with an impressive accent.

There's no better way to prove your interest in a person's culture than learning the language. Once they realize the effort you put into understanding where they come from, they feel a natural urge to reciprocate that effort.

In other words, speak to someone in their native language and they will want to get to know you better.

So by learning a second language, you're making yourself more likable to the entire swath of humanity who speaks the language.

3. Learning a language will make you more attractive

Of course, when a person likes you more, they're also way more likely to take a romantic interest in you.

I can tell you from experience that there is no better language of love than language itself.

Think about the most intense romantic relationship of your life. Aside from the physical elements, what attracted you most about that person?

Was it the way she enthralled you with her stories? Was it the way he made you laugh so hard that tears came to your eyes? Was it the way she could somehow make sense of your thoughts and emotions better than you yourself could?

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Whatever it was you most loved about that person, chances are it had something to do with how he or she used language.

No matter how funny or captivating a person's story is, you won't appreciate it if you can't understand their words. No matter how empathetic and intelligent a person is, they won't "get" you if they can't understand your words.

By learning a person's language, you are opening up the avenues for love and connection.  

A British backpacker once challenged me on this point at a street party in Rio de Janeiro.

He argued that not knowing Portuguese gave him a competitive advantage in dating, since it made him more exotic.

I agreed that exoticism can be attractive, but it doesn't have staying power. I argued that exoticism could never compete with linguistic charm.

To prove his point, the backpacker called over a pair of Brazilian women. One of them had been giving him the eye. He was tall with blonde hair and blue eyes, so he certainly may have appeared exotic to her.

But the women spoke minimal English. I had to do a lot of the translation. As the night went on, the women became increasingly impatient with the language barrier between them and the British guy.

Instead, they turned their attention to me. They were impressed by my Portuguese ability and my familiarity with Brazilian music and culture.

At one point, the woman who was originally attracted to the Brit turned to him and said "Why can't you be more like your friend?!"

Everyone laughed ... except him.

"Wait, what's that?" he asked.

"Oh, sorry, I forgot to say it English!"

We all laughed again ... except him.

That night, the British guy went back to hostel alone and signed up for my Portuguese program.

Image Copyright Idahosa Ness, 2016

4. Learning a language makes you more employable

Nati Harnik/AP

Once you've learned your second language and found yourself a nice little boo-thang to settle down and build a big multi-cultural family with, you'll need to turn your attention to practical matters.

I don't gotta tell you that finding gainful employment these days is harder than ever. With a rapidly globalizing economy, competition in the job market is fierce.

But learning a second language will give you a huge leg up on the competition.

A University of Phoenix Research Institute study found that demand for U.S. workers who speak foreign languages — particularly Spanish and Chinese — will rise over the next decade.

Their survey of 419 employers and 511 workers revealed that 42% of employers expected the demand for business proficiency in Chinese to be moderate or high among recruiters; 70% said the same of Spanish.

But shockingly, a majority of the workers said that they neither planned to learn Spanish nor attain business knowledge of Chinese in this period.

Perhaps they already blew their savings on that pet monkey?

Mohd Rasfan/Getty Images

Whatever the case may be, there's definitely an opportunity for you to "aprovechar la situación." (If you don't know what that means, then you're behind the curve, buddy — catch up!)

Moral of the story — money is multilingual. Wanna become its friend? Then learn to speak more of its languages.

5. Learning a language will make you more open-minded

Personally, I consider the first four reasons of this article as nice side benefits to learning a second language. But they aren't things that really motivate me to learn.

What really motivates me to learn languages is my unyielding desire to understand the world and its people.

If you only spend time with your own group of people, you can easily start believing that your group's way of thinking and being is the only way to think and be.

As Mark Twain once wrote:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

I'll take Twain's advice further and say that learning a second language is really what delivers the death-blow to narrow-mindedness.

Nowadays, tourism has become so commercialized and sterilized that you can travel to the opposite side of the planet and still do the same stuff you do back home.

So just showing up won't cut it anymore. You really need to immerse yourself in the local culture.

And the only way to truly immerse yourself in the local culture is to have deep conversations with the locals in their native language.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Back in 2006, when I was a senior in high school, immigration was the hot-button issue (not much has changed). I was watching a lot of news, and I was disturbed by how the media was portraying Mexicans as something other than human.

So I decided to travel to Mexico to learn Spanish and find out what the real deal was with the Mexican people. Guess what I found out  — Mexicans are human too!

In 2008, during the Beijing olympics, U.S. media was obsessing over Chinese foul play. Once again, the media was painting China with the broad-stroke characterization of a cartoon villain.  

Meanwhile, I was on the ground in Beijing having the time of my life learning Chinese. And guess what I found out — Chinese people are human just like us!

Image Copyright Idahosa Ness, 2016

In 2010, I traveled to Rio de Janeiro to learn Portuguese. Before my trip, every American I told my travel plans to would give one of the two following reactions: "Brazil? I heard it's super dangerous down there! Better stay safe!"

Rio is one of my favorite places in the world and I go back every year for Carnival. And guess what I found out — Brazilians are human too!

Image Copyright Idahosa Ness, 2016

Americans, more than any other nationality I know, seem to have the impression that the grass is always more murderous and STD-ridden on the other side.

And as an American myself, I'm not immune to prejudice. A lifetime of watching World War II movies left me with the prejudice of Germans as being dry and probably semi-racist. So I never had an interest to travel to Germany or get to know its people.

Then, in 2014 I went to a conference in Berlin and instantly fell in love with the place. It's diverse and lively, and the dominant culture is one of the most tolerant I've ever experienced.

While people were chanting "Build a wall!" back in the U.S., Berliners (who for some reason aren't very fond of walls) were wearing T-shirts saying, "Refugees welcome."

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

When I found all this out, I was ashamed at myself for allowing myself to be prejudiced. So in 2015 I decided to return to Germany to learn German, and guess what I found out (drumroll please) — Germans are human just like us!

So learn a second language, and you'll be way less likely to be a bigoted prick.

If only we made multilingualism a requirement for holding public office in the United States ...

Jae C. Hong/AP

So there you have it — five compelling reasons to become a better human being by learning a second language.

Getting there won't be easy, but the payoff will be big.

At the very least, it's better than scrubbing monkey poo off your living room carpet.

About the Author: Idahosa Ness is an educator, entrepreneur and founder of The Mimic Method, an unconventional language learning approach that focuses on accent training and music. He speaks six languages, has lived in 15 different countries and is a contributor at Keteka. You can learn more Idahosa and his method at www.MimicMethod.com