Ten ways learning a second language can help your career

Learning a second language can not only be personally fulfilling, it can also have big payoffs for your professional career as well.

Yves Herman/Reuters
The EU flag flies at the entrance to the European Commission headquarters, September 2015.

I will just come out and say it in plain English: The American job market is terrible.

However, for those who can say that in a second language, the job market is just a little bit less terrible. Learning a second language can boost your career, and here's how.

1. It Puts You First in Line for Government Jobs

Although my best friend has been out of the job market for 18 years raising her kid, her application to the FBI has been bumped to the top of the pile because she is a Defense Language Institute graduate.

Although the FBI is her first choice, there are many government departments and agencies that are actively recruiting foreign language speakers.

2. It Creates Other Job Opportunities

I have an extreme pro-polyglot bias based on personal experience. I work as a book scout. Because I can read book manuscripts and news stories in Italian, this gives me a leg up on monolingual scouts. I can find the next best seller/blockbuster film idea before it's translated into English.

But publishing is far from the only industry that has become global. Four out of new five jobs in the United States are directly linked to foreign trade. In fact, in some sectors, the language deficit is so huge, that jobs are going unfilled.

3. You Can Use It to Get a Second Chance

I asked my friend, Darren, a fellow francophonie, if his time spent in France as a high school exchange student was worth the money. Here's his response:

"I have to say that I honestly owe every meaningful job I've ever had to the fact that I speak fluent French. It also got me a degree.

When I decided to go back to school after dropping out of college, I didn't have many prospects and little chance of obtaining a student loan or scholarship in the U.S. But university is free in France for anyone who can pass the exams and speak the language, and I managed to do both. So it gave me a second chance. I finished at the top of my class at the Sorbonne, in Paris. 

When I returned to the US, I got a temp job at a large corporation. I was just a temp admin assistant, replacing a woman who left on maternity leave. I was filing and making copies, biding my time. But then they received a request for proposal written in French from a French-speaking country in Africa, and they didn't have anyone there who spoke the language. They were going to send it out to translate, but I did it for them overnight. They immediately hired me on as a full-time contract manager, gave me my own office and admin support, and paid for my night school, so that I could learn about government contract law. I was quickly promoted to an office next to the president of the company, and was soon accompanying him on trips overseas, and managing contracts in Europe." 

4. You Become a Better Communicator in Your First Language

People who learn a second language have greater metalinguistic awareness, which is the science-y way of saying they have a better grasp on grammar and sentence structure because they can compare the mechanics of two different language systems. This focus on language mechanics improves the clarity of their writing and speaking in their mother tongue. Also, polyglots have bigger vocabularies. To quote Geoffrey Willans: "You can never understand one language until you understand at least two."

5. Body Language Is Not Universal

My friend Charles, who speaks fluent Japanese and English, has seen translation failure many times in meetings between the Japanese and American executives at his company. According to Charles, one of the major translation problems at work is the differences in body language.

"People who don't speak a second language don't understand that translation between languages is not one-to-one. There is culture, context, and worldview attached to language that cannot be learned from a book. People who only speak English can only understand how communication breaks down… in English. For example, there are many degrees of politeness in the Japanese language. Because politeness is expressed through the verb conjugations, I've watched the level of politeness drop sharply in meetings. The Japanese team immediately knows that the bosses are frustrated when they start using more direct speech, but the Americans have no clue that the Japanese project leads are unhappy, as the tone of voice of the Japanese execs never changes. Since there is no equivalent to this in English, the company interpreters are sometimes at a loss on how to translate this rudeness or anger into English without sounding offensive or unprofessional," Charles says.

6. Interpreters Don't Interpret Everything

Another problem with interpreters is that no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them. Explains Charles, "Company interpreters know that their income is tied to the duration of the project. They may intentionally soften harsh words in their translation between the two languages to prevent a potentially project-ending argument from escalating."

Even the most honest interpreters don't want to be the bearer of bad news, and may subconsciously work to keep the peace through overly civil translations, even if this is bad for business.

7. Learning Another Language Improves Memory

At a certain point during my adolescence, my brain lost its ability to effortlessly absorb 100 new vocabulary words a day. Fortunately, research shows that learning new languages improves working memory and increases attention span... which makes all the rote memorization I do now as an adult almost worth it.

8. Bilinguals Are Better Multitaskers

If you could listen to my brain skip like a record through French, Italian, and Spanish, then you would probably believe the common misconception that bilingualism creates confusion. However, toggling between languages, or code switching, makes bilinguals better at cognitive skills like prioritizing relevant information over the irrelevant, and working on multiple projects at once. In one study, test subjects used a driving simulator while simultaneously doing distracting tasks. Bilinguals made fewer driving errors than monolinguals.

9. Bilingualism Boosts Creativity

When people learn a second language, they generally become more tolerant of new ideas and experiences that open up their brains to divergent thinking. Dystopian associations aside, scientists use divergent thinking as a measurement of creativity. Bilinguals score much higher on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which measures mental characteristics like fluency, elaboration, originality, and flexibility than monolinguals. (See also: Boost Your Creativity: 9 Surprising Ways to Generate New Ideas)

10. A Second Language Makes For Better Decision-Making

People who can think in a foreign language are more level-headed problem solvers, especially when it comes to decisions about money. Researchers at the University of Chicago discovered The Foreign Language Effect. In a nutshell, the researchers found that people are more systematic in their decision-making process when presented information in their second language. Specifically, thinking about financial decisions in a foreign language reduces loss aversion, a cognitive bias that leads people to pass up financial opportunities.

This article first appeared on Wise Bread.

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