The benefits and advantages of speaking more than one language, definitely outweigh the disadvantages. However, in this blogpost I wanted to explain how speaking multiple foreign languages can affect you in various ways that are not always positive.
You get to know people in their native language
Based on my experience, people behave differently when speaking their native language. The jokes, the tone of voice and pitch, the volume and even the gestures and facial expressions change with each language and are most genuinely expressed in their mother tongue. If you speak to natives in their language, you’ll find that they can express themselves freely and vividly with little language limitations, which is not only interesting and enriching but also extremely rewarding to experience as a foreigner in their environment. Due to the lack of language barriers and the resulting casual state, most people tend to be more open for spontaneous conversations or show an increased willingness to help when they get to speak their native language.
- You see the world from different cultural perspectives
Once you speak a foreign language fluently, you are prone towards adapting parts of the foreign culture as well since it is inherently part of properly speaking a foreign language. With your extended knowledge of other cultures, you are able to put yourself in their shoes in all kinds of situations such as making friends or facing a conflict in a business context. Based on your understanding of each culture’s viewpoint, you are able to see the world from their perspective. You can understand why certain cultures act in ways that are perceived as impolite by other cultures or historical conflicts between nations that have their roots in different cultural values. For instance, you’ll understand why the typical Dutch bluntness can be perceived as inappropriate by Japanese or even German people.
- You can adjust yourself to ambiguous environments
Speaking more than one language interchangeably, requires a good amount of adaptability and flexibility. I found that this level of flexibility also translates to uncertain or fast-changing environments at work or at school. The more languages I am learning, the more I can adapt to ambiguous situations such as facing new tasks at work that I haven’t carried out before. It requires me to act without having access to a full description for every step to follow through, therefore, I will need to learn from my mistakes and just try it out first, which is similar to the language learning process that I have been going through previously.
- It is easier for you to work & live abroad
Living away from home can be challenging and exhausting due to language and culture barriers, little job opportunities and a small or non-existing people network. If you speak more foreign languages, you will find that more jobs or internships are accessible, that have been reserved only for local language speakers. Apart from this, you are able to make more local friends in less time because you can communicate in ways that are more convenient for them and their friends. Having first friends and a job in a new place will make you feel at homeand at ease much faster, compared to people who don’t speak the local language.
- You easily study/work with cross-cultural teams
Working with people from various cultures is always a challenge, since everyone is used to different ways of working together in terms of timeliness when meeting deadlines, quality of work, language level, governance or type of leadership. The challenging aspect of cross-cultural teamwork lays, for instance, in bringing together the talents and strengths of each team member into one united project, while making everyone feel comfortable (psychological safety to share opinions, experiences in team) yet challenged and motivated at the same time. You intercultural knowledge and language proficiency can help you while managing your international team by adapting your (leadership) communication style if required e.g. to help solve conflicts.
- Fluctuating language levels
Once you start learning a language, I found that your skill level will either improve or deteriorate with time. It is rather difficult to maintain the same language level over longer periods, especially before reaching fluency. Hence if you are on the same level on the one hand..
- Native language issues
It is a common myth that says you will never loose your mother tongue, even after decades of living abroad without speaking your native language. However, experience has shown that even native speakers have troubles avoiding a gradual deterioration of their language level if they are living abroad and speak mostly foreign languages.
I noticed that it is more difficult to form grammatically correct sentence constructions in German, especially in a formal discussion, not so much when writing texts German. Additionally, I can’t seem to remember some words on-demand in German and tend to replace them with English words instead, which can be inappropriate in certain contexts, for example with elderly people. Once I spend more time in Germany, the vocabulary comes back rather quickly but many English-grammar sentence constructions still stick to me when I talk in my native language, German.
- Mixing up languages
This is building on the previous language challenge, but goes even further than loosing your mother tongue level. Languages from the same families such as the slavic or romanic/neo-latin types, can help you learn another language faster, yet can be a struggle at the same time. If you attempt to study two similar languages at the same time, you will face difficulties in keeping them apart while trying to speak in one language at a time. Understanding and reading should facilitate your language ability.
Speaking, however, is a whole different story. Based on previous research and personal experience, it is challenging to learn two languages that are closely connected, at the same time. The words will be merged In your mind and to avoid this issue, it works for most people to study one language until fluency is reached and only then continue onto the second language from the same language family.
In summary, I would like to highlight the positive effects of speaking multiple foreign languages such as opening new doors to cultures and people’s mindsets once they are able to express themselves to you in their native language.
While speaking multiple foreign languages is an advantage on so many levels, there are some challenges that should be acknowledged as they occur to almost any language learner at some point in their journey. These challenges are not necessarily negative, however, can affect your language speaking ability on the long run and have to be tackled in a continuous learning process.