It may seem counterintuitive to be learning a language in a world where international travel is indefinitely on hold, but it seems now more than ever people are willing to give it a try. The question is, will it stick, or is it just another hobby to kill time, such as making sourdough bread or binging “Tiger King?”
When speaking to someone from another country in the U.S., chances are high that they know English. But, there is something to be said for connecting with someone in their native tongue. By mastering a second language, you open up a new range of people to communicate with.
Especially when traveling, knowing the language of the country you are in and speaking with locals can have a huge impact on your experience, allowing for full cultural and linguistic immersion.
A common misconception is that knowing another language is no longer beneficial in the business world because most people know English. Even within the U.S., bilingualism can be a huge advantage, as according to the Census, over 60 million people in the U.S. primarily speak a language other than English in their households.
In addition to these advantages of speaking another language, studying a new language can have tremendous cognitive benefits. Bilingualism is said to help fight cognitive decline, improve memory, enhance problem-solving skills, refine listening skills — the list goes on.
With the extra time quarantine has given people, many have started to learn a new language for these very reasons. Apps such as Duolingo, Babbel and Memrise have seen a huge jump in new users over the past year. For example, Duolingo’s number of new members has reportedly increased by 300% since the start of the pandemic.
These often free and easy to use apps are a popular starting point for new language learners and those who want to maintain their current language abilities.
Unfortunately, learning a language virtually does come with its challenges, especially for those who are more accustomed to a classroom setting. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of in-person conversations and speaking practice.
Many students who have been studying languages throughout their college careers have seen firsthand the impacts of virtual language learning. For recent University of Wisconsin graduate Hannah Sugrue, finishing her Spanish degree over Zoom the past semester wasn’t ideal.
“When we were in-person, it was a lot easier to work on my speaking skills, I felt more obligated to speak in class. I think my Spanish skills declined because I wasn’t able to talk as much,” Sugrue said. “It used to be easier to communicate with the professor and other students. I miss that in-person interaction and learning from my classmates’ perspectives.”
Speaking is just as important as reading, writing and listening, and this has been one of the largest losses for virtual language learners. Creating an immersive environment is extremely important for all aspects of language learning, but it feels impossible to experience right now.
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Those in the U.S. who are learning English as a second language face a similar challenge. Many of these students live in households where English is not spoken. Without the ability to attend class in-person, they are also missing out on an important language immersion opportunity and risk seeing a decline in their speaking abilities.
Despite the challenges presented by virtual learning, Sugrue still encourages people to try learning a new language.
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“It’s so beneficial and important to learn another language just because it allows you to get different perspectives on the world,” Sugrue said. “Learning Spanish has allowed me to see things differently.”
Though it is uncertain when we will be able to travel again, there are still so many benefits to learning a new language. If anything, it can remind us that there is another world outside of our homes, and give us hope for the future that we can explore it again soon.