Take time to learn a language


June 5, 2019

One of my great regrets is not learning another language.

I took Spanish in high school for a couple of years, but didn’t practice it enough over the years to go beyond the few words I’ve recalled since moving out here to New Mexico. And when I married into Japan, I found that my tongue just didn’t work right for Japanese, so I got discouraged and quit.

I often joke that I am in fact bilingual — I know both English and Southern — but that’s just me covering up my own lack of knowing a real second language and explaining away the twang in my voice.

Bi- and multilingual people are capable of bringing together people, cultures and nations. That’s why I want to amend my previous preachings to this year’s high school and college graduates: I want to also urge you learn a second language.

It’ll pay off professionally, socially and personally, and it’s what the world needs more of.

It’s easier to learn a second language while still young. Kids especially have a great ability to learn multiple languages, and older young people have an advantage as well. I’ll be the first to admit that, while it’s never too late, the older you get the tougher it is to learn a second language.

The advantages of knowing another language are endless. It opens up entire populations of people with whom you can communicate at a personal level. You can also gain a greater appreciation for a culture if you understand its primary language, and you’ll find a greater acceptance if you can speak someone else’s language.

Moreover, research has shown that knowing a second language expands your cognitive abilities — giving you a greater attention span, improving your ability to multitask, and making a third language even easier to learn.

When my Japanese wife and I started our family, she often spoke Japanese to our young daughter, who understood her but would mostly respond in English (the dominant language in our household). I didn’t realize what exactly was going on until I interviewed a first-generation Polish-American for a newspaper story I was working on: I asked if she were fluent in Polish, and she responded, “I have a fluent ear” — she could understand her parents in their native language but she couldn’t really speak it, since English was the language spoken outside her home.

Here in New Mexico, we have a higher number of bilinguals per capita than most states. Accredited Language Services posted a list of the top 10 most bi- and multilingual states, based on U.S. Census data. At the top of the list is California, where 45% of its inhabitants speak two or more languages, and second is Texas, with 35%. New Mexico, with 34% of our population speaking one or more languages, was a close third.

Still, New Mexicans — and all of America for that matter — are behind the eight ball when it comes to knowing multiple languages. In the U.S., less than a quarter of the population speaks a second language, while a majority of the rest of the world is bilingual.

As this world gets smaller and more interactive and interdependent, knowing more than one language will become an even greater advantage — especially for young people. They will be the bridge-builders of the future.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Learn at least one other language. It’ll pay off in ways that monolinguals like myself can appreciate but never fully express.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:

[email protected]


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