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Five reasons to take your high-school language classes seriously

On a cold, damp morning in Germany, I found myself in a tense meeting in the manufacturing facility of a major corporation. We were discussing the development of a product that my company required for its operations. The business partner paused the meeting for a sidebar conversation to discuss our ask. Instead of retreating to another room, they simply switched from English to German. Clearly, they didn't want us to know what they were saying. Now, I'm what many would consider a polyglot. I speak ten languages, and learning them comes naturally to me. My German is by no means perfect, but it was sufficient to decipher what they were saying. So when they started to disparage our proposal, I interjected, "That is not true!"

Perhaps I was a bit too impulsive. They were stunned. They glanced at each other, then at me, and one of them said, "Oh right, you speak German."

"Not bad for an American, right?" I jested, and suddenly the tension melted into laughter. The meeting was a success, and the product in question is now available to customers in North America and Europe from a thriving Fortune 500 company.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you take your high-school Spanish or French class exclusively to eavesdrop on colleagues or business partners (although that is fun). Nor am I suggesting that you take on the task of learning 10 languages if that isn't on your list of 20 things to accomplish before 20. However, whether it be Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, or French, I do suggest you treat your high school foreign language class as a practical (and even vocational) skill that you'll be able to use for life. Here are 5 reasons why:

1. COLLEGE. Mastery of a foreign language will help your college application stand out. Beyond having good grades, it shows that you're well-rounded, enjoy learning and immersing yourself in new cultures, and have a global mindset. Colleges take these aspects of your extracurricular persona quite seriously as they aspire to watch you graduate as a global and tolerant citizen of the world.

2. BUSINESS. Having a foreign language on your resume will distinguish you. As scientific research, corporations, and organizations become more global, foreign languages are key to forging successful business relationships. I've used my languages to build meaningful partnerships with colleagues around the world. Plus, they view me with greater respect for making the effort to communicate with them in their native tongue, no matter how much better their English may be.

3. MENTAL ACUITY. When you become versed enough in a foreign language to hold conversations (even basic ones), you'll learn that your brain is forced to "stay on its feet" to recall words, phrases, and grammar. It takes a lot of practice to master a language, which is absolutely expected, but you'll find that your thinking will be sharper and more agile.

4. LEARNING ABOUT YOURSELF AND OTHER CULTURES TOO. This may seem vague, but it's a tangible benefit you'll find from learning (and speaking) a foreign language. When you can hold even a basic conversation in a foreign language, you'll learn that your brain starts to adapt to the fascinating norms of different cultures and people. You'll find that your way of thinking becomes more open, tolerant, and understanding . After you've become even a little conversational in a foreign language and have learned about the culture behind the language, your skills will come in handy for my all time favorite reason for learning a foreign language: travel.

5. TRAVEL. While many people, especially in common tourist destinations, may have some grip on English, learning a foreign language and visiting countries where it's spoken will make your trip easier and allow you to learn more about the local customs and culture. It can enable you to visit off-the-beaten-path restaurants that only locals would frequent, allowing you to order in the local tongue while trying the best of that culture's cuisine. You can also meet locals and experience a foreign destination as a visitor, rather than just as a tourist. But even more important in becoming a global citizen, not everyone speaks English. Even if they do, you may be able to more effectively communicate in the local tongue. Whether studying abroad, taking a trip of a lifetime, or embarking on a Eurotrip with friends in college, take a look at the numbers to see how much of the world is at your fingertips when you can speak one of the three most commonly taught languages in U.S. public schools:

  • Spanish: Ability to communicate with over 500 million speakers across 22 countries

  • French: Ability to communicate with nearly 300 million speakers across 29 countries

  • Mandarin: Ability to communicate with well over one billion speakers across Asia

In my humble opinion, there are many more tangible benefits to learning a foreign language, like more deeply understanding grammar in your native tongue and developing a more complex vocabulary, among others. You don't need to be a polyglot to pick up the ability to learn a foreign language, and "being bad at languages" is a common myth. In summary, take your foreign language classes seriously! And when you need help, come to us at Prime, whether it be to prepare for your final exam or for asking for directions on the street of your next destination!


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