Most people in English-speaking countries do not feel compelled to learn a second language. With many people in the rest of the world speaking English, and many regions of the world speak English almost exclusively, many native English-speakers consider learning a second language more time-consuming than it’s worth.
But times are changing, and English may not remain the de facto language of business forever. Not only is becoming insular a distinct disadvantage, but people who close themselves off to the opportunity of learning a new language also miss out on all of the personal and economic benefits that speaking a new language can bring.
Become a more rational thinker
Language studies show that learning a second language is a viable way to improve the rationality of your thinking. More recent studies show that thinking in a second language helps people make better decisions. This is especially helpful for decisions regarding losses, gains and risks, cause and effect and moral choices.
One study showed that people make more rational choices about monetary gains when the problem is presented in their second language. When acting under normal conditions, people typically evaluate losses as irrationally greater than gains, even when the risk and reward are in a perfect 50/50 balance. This is known as risk aversion. When researchers presented a problem that involved wagering small amounts of money on a coin-toss, people thinking in their first language were more likely to display risk-averse behavior, regardless of the high odds of a net profit if the wager was made. When the participants were presented the same problem in their second language, they were more likely to rationally consider the odds and realize that they were likely to profit, taking the wagering option with the higher outcome in spite of any risk aversion they may have felt. Instead of relying on intuition, the participants solved the problem by methodically reasoning out the better outcome for themselves.
Additionally, speaking a second language leads people to engage in less superstitious behavior. Human thinking is typically guided by superstitious thinking. We have a set notion of cause and effect in our minds that causes us to seek out patterns of cause and effect, even when they aren’t present. A good example of this is when a baseball player believes that his at-bat ritual will lead to a better outcome. Those who spoke second languages are less likely to make this mistake.
Those who spoke a second language were also shown to be more adept at figuring out moral decisions. When presented with the trolley problem — a classic philosophical dilemma where a person is forced to choose whether or not to sacrifice one life to save five lives, or sacrifice the five to save the one — those who were presented the problem in their second language were more likely to perceive the individuals as each having equal value and thus make the rational choice to sacrifice one life and save the five others. It found that while thinking of the problem in their second language, the portion of the brain that is used for language and rational thinking activates while emotions and intuition become inhibited.
In addition to helping people exercise rational thought, studies also have found that the increased brain activity promoted by speaking a second language also helps to stave off certain kinds of brain diseases such as dementia.
Being bilingual will improve your problem-solving skills, but how will it help your wallet? The New York Times best-seller Freakonomics found that there is measurable financial gain from speaking a second language — for an American, that would be an average 2 percent bonus. That means if your salary is $30,000, a year you would earn an extra $600 on average if you spoke a second language. What’s the benefit of spending time learning a new language if it translates to only a small bonus?
Returns for learning a second language differ depending on the language you choose. Demand for languages besides English has increased, meaning higher wages for those who speak other languages. The same study that calculated the 2 percent increase in wages found that this bonus is different for different languages. Increases changed depending on the language, the study showed average increases of 1.5 percent for Spanish, 2.3 percent for French and 3.8 percent for German.
Takeaway: Learn a second language
The economic benefits of learning a new language speak for themselves, you earn more by learning a second language. Depending on what part of the world, or even the U.S. you’re in, it can help grow your wallet. With growing economies and more foreign competition, learning a new language is a useful skill that can make you more appealing to potential employers while also improving your mental health and reasoning, and even help you understand a new culture. That way, you can receive the personal benefits of speaking a second language while also making yourself a scarce and valuable resource to potential employers.
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