Misconceptions about Language Learning #4: If I’m not speaking it, I’m not using it


A short while ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of languages being banned to the bottom of your CV. We know that employers like multilingual candidates, yet the language ability is considered “only” a skill. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there is a big misconception at work: The idea that, when you aren’t speaking a language, you’re not benefiting from it.

Let’s take this thought experiment by looking at a simple skill that also falls victim to the “no use if not using” view: driving. You only use this skill as you are in a car, on a road. But the benefits are wider: You have learnt the highway code, you are better at estimating journey times by car, and you are more aware of the economics of owning a vehicle. Being a driver is more than just driving.

So what are the wider benefits of speaking another language?

  1. On this very blog, there’s plenty to read about the good things language learning can do to your brain. It is a genuinely healthy thing to do. Heck, it can even make your brain grow! The intensive application of language study has been shown to increase the size of your hippocampus. And who wouldn’t want that!
  2. Languages give you great transferable sills. Learning to speak another language is an exercise in patience, humility and communication. Looking at this list of the most desirable skills employers cite when they are looking for the perfect job applicant, you should get an idea of what I am saying. Language skill is more than just language skill, it is also hard evidence of the many soft skills that make you a great colleague and employee.
  3. You will learn more than you bargained for, as language learning can teach you cultural awareness better than most textbooks ever could. It gently forces to immerse yourself in another mindset and get involved. For example, let’s look at the following German words. Do you understand how much they can tell you, in one word, about history and culture in Germany?

Finally, I believe there is a symbolic power in being multilingual. Language learning sends a message of tolerance and curiosity. This could not be more important in the world of today. As such, what do you make of this table, showing the decline in language skills among US Presidents?

  • I think there are two different approaches to this post: 1 is the idea of European multilingualism and 2 is the idea of American monolingualism. We’re desperately monolingual and the fact is that if Americans hope to be politicians or business people alike, they need to speak the language of their ‘customers’. I’m willing to bet that the US will see it’s first Hispanic president in the next 15 years and that the American variant of Spanish will be the dominant language in the next 100 – when that shift happens, will the skill of ‘I speak Spanish’ be less valuable?

    Regardless, your argument about the soft skills that come from learning a language are absolutely valid. The fact that employers don’t see this is a sad reflection of a greater apathy towards second language skills.