What do you call a laughing jar of mayonnaise? LMAYO. What do you call someone who only speaks one language, but lives in a country where over 350 are spoken? Why, a monolingual American of course.
If you’re wondering what a laughing jar of mayonnaise and monolingual Americans have in common, don’t. That’s silly. If you’re wondering why so few Americans are fluent in a second language — less than 1% in fact, excluding bilinguals who grow up speaking another language — consider this: we native English speakers don’t actually need to learn other languages.
Think about it: unlike our polyglot friends around the world, we grow up already speaking the world’s lingua franca (common language). So while Germans and Koreans are hard at work perfecting their second and third languages to communicate with the rest of the world, we’re hard at work… um… perfecting the art of the selfie? Okay, that’s unfair. The selfie can never be perfected.
It’s not like we Americans haven’t tried learning languages — most of us have struggled through at least a couple years of high school Spanish (no bueno) — it’s just that most Europeans start learning their second languages much earlier than we do (about 8 years earlier on average). So by the time they get into high school, constructing sentences like, “Sir, would you be so kind as to tell me where, precisely, the bathroom with the 19th century mosaic is located?”, we’re humiliating ourselves with phrases like, “Me go nice bathroom, yes?”
Now, you could just count your losses and start celebrating all that extra selfie time you’ll enjoy not learning a second language, but before you do, consider this: learning a language is actually good for you. Sure you don’t have to learn another language, but just think about all the great things you’d miss out on if you only did the things you had to do: like painting pictures of clowns, badminton tournaments, binging on Netflix, snorkeling, sitting on the hood of a car while you dare your friends to make it past 60 mph (you totally should shouldn’t do that).
All jokes (and questionable activities) aside, if you haven’t already learned a second language, you’re seriously missing out on one of the most singularly rewarding experiences life has to offer. And this isn’t just me trying to give you a bad case of FOMO. Here are five things you absolutely should be afraid to miss out on by not learning a foreign language:
1. Learning to stand up for yourself
Yes, the restaurant staff is talking about you in their native language. And no, what they’re saying isn’t nice. So why not combat their snarkiness by ordering food in their language? They’ll appreciate the effort, and who knows — you might even discover a super hush-hush, off-the-menu dish. And just imagine their surprise when, having overheard (and understood) their conversation, you boldly proclaim: “For your information — I am TOTALLY pulling off these hot pants!” (And imagine your surprise when your friend — who speaks their language fluently — tells you that they actually said, “You shouldn’t touch those hot plates.”)
2. Benefitting from the wisdom of your elders
Your girlfriend’s grandma only speaks Spanish, and you’d like to get to know her better. Aside from all the cool things you can learn from someone who actually made it through adulthood without Tinder, abuelita can probably share some really embarrassing stories from your girlfriend’s childhood. Like, for example, the time she pressed the emergency stop button on the mall escalator in the early 90s, causing a massive human-domino-chain-reaction that ended with a woman being impaled on a Tickle Me Elmo doll (Okay, so “impaled” is perhaps too strong a word. Let’s just say that she was tickled — to death). Note: no one was actually tickled, and certainly not to death.
3. Reviving your love life
That guy you met at the dog park is tall, good-looking and only speaks Polish — plus, he’s single! Or at least that’s the story you created in your head about him. He could be happily married and the father of 12, but you’d never know because you never even tried speaking Polish! Just think — you could be missing out on a long and happy life of fresh pierogies and Czesław Miłosz poems. Or, you could be unknowingly hitting on a married man with 12 kids. Either way, you’re not getting past hello with this guy if you’re not willing to meet him halfway.
4. Earning the respect of your peers
Ok, so clearly you shouldn’t learn a language just to make your friends jealous. Actually, scratch that — making your friends jealous is exactly why you should learn a language. Imagine the feelings of inadequacy you’ll incite when your own industriousness forces your friends to reflect on what they’ve been wasting their time doing while you’ve been broadening your horizons and creating new synapses learning a foreign language. (Ok, so Tina is a neurologist and Jason was just elected to Congress — but, hello! Second language here!)
5. Making mom proud
Isn’t it time your mother was able to talk about you without her sentences ending in, “and that’s why Andrew owes the government $125,000.” Sure it is. And if your mom’s anything like my mom (a kimono maker living with the !Kung people on the edge of the Kalahari Desert), she’ll love bragging to her friends about your serious language skills. So next Mother’s Day, rather than macaroni picture frames or same-day-delivery bouquets, give your mom the gift of bragging rights — after all, the !Kung people have 32 different ways to say, “My son learned a foreign language and I’m proud of him.” (Note: they totally don’t, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?!)
Clearly this list isn’t exhaustive, and surely there are more substantive ways you’re missing out than telling off your waiter or making your friends jealous, but one thing’s for sure: learning a language will permanently and positively change the way you look at the world, giving you fresh insights into cultures totally different from your own. Plus, it’ll make you smarter, more empathetic and will totally improve your clown-painting abilities . If NOT getting to experience any one of these things is any reason, then start learning a language today! Don’t wait! Do it before the end of this sentence even! Oh wait, if you’re reading this sentence it means you didn’t start before the end of that last sentence, which means it’s already too late! Wait no, that’s ridiculous — it’s never too late! Do it now!