This article on the benefits of learning a foreign language was originally published on September 11, 2014. It was the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil. It has since been edited.
The benefits of learning a foreign language can’t be overstated. From national security to international business, Americans who speak only one language are limiting themselves.
Learning other languages makes us safer. (More on that below.) It leads to more awareness of the world. And it may even stave off dementia.
Job applicants who speak a second language have a clear practical advantage. In addition, bilinguals may learn better than people who speak only one language.
The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language in a Global Society
I’d be happy to talk about the benefits of learning a second language any day. But today it’s even more important than usual.
Thirteen years ago today, hijackers took control of four jetliners, flying two of them into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania after passengers tried to retake control of the plane.
President Obama has also just spoken to the nation about ISIS.
In remembering the terror attacks of 2001 and considering this new threat, I think the benefits of learning a foreign language are clear.
Language as a Counterterrorism Tool
The world is a dangerous place. Or at least certain parts of the world are dangerous.
Like all countries, the U.S. tries to gauge if a certain actor, group, or situation is a threat. The ability to do so comes from understanding that actor, group, or situation in context.
That context almost always involves a foreign language and culture.
The languages spoken are as varied as the actors themselves. Table 1 lists just a few of the approximately 60 organizations that the U.S. Department of State labels Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). You can see the State Department’s full list of FTOs here.
Foreign Languages in Our Schools
We have to stress the benefits of learning a foreign language in our schools. And we need to begin teaching our children another language before they even learn to speak.
We can do this by exposing them to Spanish, Chinese, French, and so on.
Immersion programs, Montessori schools, and some private and public schools do this already.
They teach American children, many coming from English-only households, that other languages exist. This is key, because when you teach kids that another language exists, you teach them that another culture exists. This culture is not the same as their own.
In short, children start to see past their own households. They also learn to see past their own classrooms and country.
But the point of exposing kids to Spanish or French is not solely so they feel a kinship with some distant group of people. It’s to create knowledge where there was ignorance before.
Studying Chinese doesn’t mean that you like China’s one-party rule. Studying French doesn’t mean that you prefer France to the U.S. (Even if you do dream about 35-hour workweeks.) And it probably goes without saying, but studying Arabic doesn’t make you a terrorist sympathizer.
But it would be silly to suggest that we’d have world peace if only you and your friends knew how to speak Spanish, for example. Things aren’t that easy.
As anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows, the path to fluency is a long one. But it’s a path that can lead to many other disciplines. These include commerce, education, geography, diplomacy, law, and counterterrorism.
“This Is America, Dammit!”
Of course, there are those who question or don’t care about the benefits of learning a second language. They shout things like, “This is America! We speak English in America.” Or “We need to concentrate on STEM subjects. Liberal arts aren’t practical.”
I have found that people who think like this don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know what it means to study a language in depth. In fact, it requires mastering the ability to analyze, decipher, reproduce, synthesize, persuade, and create.
These same people are also misinformed about what language study leads to. More job opportunities and higher pay, for example. Language learners also have opportunities to travel the world or serve their country. The benefits of learning a foreign language, then, should be clear.
But many people already know this. Their work may require foreign-language proficiency. Or they may have a loved one working in a language field.
But so do journalists and diplomats working abroad. Heads of state, members of the military, intelligence analysts—the list is long.
The Language Legacy of September 11
Thirteen years ago today, I—and thousands of others—ran from the World Trade Center’s South Tower as it pancaked and crumbled. It killed and maimed civilians.
Then came the collapse of the North Tower not long after. For more than three months, I smelled smoldering metal. Every time I looked out my office window I saw a mass graveyard.
Since that day, I’ve asked myself a lot of “what if” questions. One of the biggest is What if U.S. intelligence agencies had had more Arabic-speaking analysts? Could any of the damage and carnage from that day been prevented?
If you think that fluency in another language couldn’t thwart a terrorist attack, think about this: In January 2001, a CIA analyst in Southeast Asia investigating the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole did not translate foreign-language information for an FBI colleague who was also on assignment in the region.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, this meant that FBI couldn’t identify and detain a man named Khalid al-Mihdhar. On September 11, 2001, Mihdar boarded American Airlines Flight 77 and, with four other terrorists, flew the plane into the side of the Pentagon.
U.S. intelligence agencies won’t say how many speakers of critical languages they have. But the Commission’s bipartisan panel had this recommendation for the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks: “The CIA director should emphasize […] developing a stronger language program, with high standards and sufficient financial incentives.”
The benefits of learning a foreign language should be clear to you if you read or listen to the news. Still, the work of language professionals isn’t often mentioned in the media. But this doesn’t make it any less critical.
So what do we do? All study Arabic and go to work at the NSA? Of course not. But we need to stop thinking of a foreign language as an “easy major” or a “soft discipline.”
We need to see the study of foreign languages as a prerequisite for working in a global context. This is true no matter the domain: business, science, counterterrorism, or some other field.
In fact, our ability to speak with the world’s actors depends on it. Those actors could be friendly firms, research partners, or officials in foreign governments. Or they could be detainees suspected of terrorist ties.
Bilinguals have the clear advantage, then, because they have access to information that monolingual people lack.
Actions may speak louder than words. But words can empower people.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations, U.S. Department of State.
CIA World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency.
Ethnologue. (multiple pages)
Wikipedia. (multiple pages)
The 9/11 Commission Report.
“US spy agencies ‘struggle with post-9/11 languages,’” The Guardian, September 20, 2011.
Do you want to learn another language? First you need to pick a second language to learn. Then use our tips and resources to help you along the way. Of course, one of the best ways to learn a language is by studying abroad.