As native speaker of English, the world's most widely-spoken language, it's relatively easy to avoid learning other languages. If you live in America or another English-speaking country, you might be able to go about your daily life relying only on your native tongue. And even if you're traveling in a country that speaks a different language, English can often be enough to get by, since tourism and hospitality industries often cater to English speakers.
But a failure to learn non-English languages risks missing out on some of life's most profound experiences: of being able to cross new borders, develop cultural understanding of new places, and make connections with new people. The ability to have richer experiences traveling abroad, or even live overseas, helps you to develop a global mindset that will continue to benefit you long after you return home.
Skills in non-English languages also give you the opportunity to develop deeper connections within our own increasingly-diverse communities. According to the U.S. Census, there are 65 Americans who speak a language other than English at home. Being bilingual can help with everything from making friends to seeing local arts performances to conducting business.
And, indeed, communications skills for business are another major way that learning non-English can pay off, so to speak. Whether you're working in fashion, finance, or publishing, skills in a second language can expand your market as well as the sources of information and inspiration that you can draw upon.
Skills in languages other than English can broaden the horizons of your world as well as the opportunities available to you in your career.
If you love seeing new places, language skills can help you make it part of your job in roles such as a travel writer or flight attendant. And if you like helping people from abroad on their own travels, language skills are an asset for hospitality industry professionals like hotel managers or tour guides. Many roles don't require complete fluency in these second languages, so even intermediate-level skills can help you get hired.
If you are fully bilingual, however, there are even more careers available to you. Translators work to convert texts from one language to another, with material ranging from advertising copy to novels to movie subtitles. If you want to use your fluency to bridge cultures in real time, interpreters do the highly important but challenging job of conveying spoken meaning between speakers of two languages, which can be an opportunity to work with high-powered public speakers, politicians, and even intelligence agents.
Finally, if the study of language itself is your passion, you can become a linguist and work analyzing the structure of different languages and how they are used. This specialized expertise is highly valued in industries including education, publishing, and the government.
There are countless reasons to learn languages other than English, but fitting traditional on-campus courses into your schedule (and/or your budget) can be a challenge for many learners. Taking online courses through Coursera can help eliminate these obstacles by allowing you to learn from the same instructors and course materials as on-campus students - but on your own flexible schedule, and at a much lower cost.
Within a given language, you can find courses at a variety of levels and areas - for instance, if you want to learn Mandarin Chinese, you can take Chinese for beginners or for intermediate learners. If your interest is more academic, you can take courses in linguistics, or even in archaeology if you want to study ancient languages and cultures.
Regardless of your area of interest, don’t have to sacrifice quality to learn online. With Coursera, you can take courses from great learning institutions from all over the world, including Peking University, École Polytechnique, and University of California, Davis.
Before learning other languages, it is helpful to have a strong understanding of your first language. You may be able to apply your knowledge of grammatical structures and cognates to speed up the learning process. This can be especially helpful if you want to learn a language with a high degree of mutual intelligibility, such as Spanish and Portuguese or Russian and Ukrainian. A background in Latin can be beneficial if you plan to learn a Romance language: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, or Romanian. Understanding the Japanese writing system kanji may help you in your study of Chinese.
If you have a deep interest in a part of the world, a strong desire to communicate with people, and a flair for picking up new words, learning other languages may be right for you. Learning other languages requires persistence, patience, and a willingness to make mistakes. If you have plans to travel, live, or work abroad, learning to speak the languages used in the countries where you’re going can be important and give you a strong motivation to study.
Additional topics you can study that are related to other languages include cross cultural communications, linguistics, and learning theory. Understanding the process of language acquisition can help you plan your course of study and set realistic goals. You also may choose to learn more about the histories and cultures of the countries where the people speak the languages you’re learning. This can improve your understanding of common idioms and offer insight into customs and norms you may need to practice when traveling abroad or speaking with native speakers of the language.
Many businesses and organizations that work with the public, such as medical offices, retailers, and customer service centers, seek out employees who speak more than one language. If you are bilingual, you may have the potential to be an important team member who can communicate with their customers and business partners. Some employers recognize the persistence and dedication it takes to learn a second language and may choose to hire employees with those traits.