While language learning is recognised for advancing cognitive skills, there is an equally important benefit – improved cultural understanding. In fact, I have found it impossible to learn a language without taking in the culture of that country. In my case, by learning beginners’ Japanese, I have been introduced to a very distinct culture; Japan can be regarded as a unique combination of East and West in many ways. More generally, learners are introduced to culture because a language must be learned in context of what happens in everyday life. So, by learning Japanese, I have learnt about Japanese life – clothes, activities, customs and food – and these all reflect Japanese culture. But why is it important to understand other peoples’ cultures? Firstly, by understanding other cultures, you can look at the world from other points of view. This means that we can connect better with other people in this globalised world. As well as this, I think understanding people is especially relevant today with the current social and political upheaval, like populism or, more drastically, terrorism. Also, learning languages can lead to better networking skills, which can be applied in the workplace. So, it’s strongly worth learning languages to explore what they can teach us about other cultures and how students, like me, can benefit from this both during and after their degree.
Exeter offers an easy way for students to start learning a language – the Foreign Language Centre, which has introduced an intriguing and refreshing challenge to me, as a first-year student. It is possible to select a range of different languages, from Spanish to Chinese, and at different skill levels. As you may know, languages can improve cognitive skills including: decision-making, multitasking, observation and memory. Languages also boast the ability to advance learners skills in other academic fields – maybe learning something new is not as daunting as it seems! So, academically, languages are a great addition to your degree, and you can begin this process at university – or through other services and apps.
As well as the academic advantages, languages provide hidden skills of cultural knowledge and understanding. In fact, this cultural understanding is crucial to advancing employability prospects and global understanding. Firstly, learning a language is one way to start breaking down cultural barriers. As I inferred earlier, to learn a language, students have to speak, read and write as that country would – all of which lay the foundations of everyday culture. For example, I have learnt the Japanese term ‘kawaii’, which can be used to describe somebody or something as cute. The internationally known kawaii culture, influences entertainment, dress, food and writing in Japan. Even rice cookers can be cute! Now, I can make sense of particular Japanese fashions, for instance, by understanding that it stems from the popular idea of ‘kawaii’. But, why would an understanding of culture, like ‘kawaii’, enhance your employability prospects? By beginning to understand every-day culture, language learners are more trusted and can more easily relate to native speakers on both a social and professional level. In the work environment, employers see employees with a language background as exhibiting both cognitive and networking prospects. So, both during and after your degree, learning a language enhances cultural understanding, which will equip you for interactions abroad and in the workplace.
by understanding other cultures, you can look at the world from other points of view
Learning languages and the cultures it introduces you to can also connect you to more large-scale international companies and relations. As a history student, I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture and observed its development from the past to the present. One example of this is the kimono, a Japanese form of clothing that can now be either westernised or traditional. I have watched with interest as Japanese companies also help connect East and West.
More broadly, from Toyota to Volkswagen to Chanel, many languages are important gateways into these global companies. As consumers or employees, language helps us understand the cultural roots of these transnational companies that take on almost mythic proportions today. As well as this, I think understanding the cultural foundations of different people helps us to develop into a more connected global community – one that is more united as socio-political changes occur.
So, be it Spanish, French, German or Chinese, I cannot recommend learning a language enough. Languages provide cultural insights into society, the workplace, international relations and politics, which, in my view, helps open learners up to new world-views. This engagement with the world encourages open-mindedness – an immeasurably valuable addition to society and the workplace. In fact, the similar immeasurability of culture could be why the cultural benefits of learning a language have been underplayed, to this day. Not only can languages can provide cognitive benefits, but also hidden cultural benefits – benefits that have an importance beyond the workplace.