New Colombo Plan Scholar Rebecca Lawrence on Why You Must Learn a Second Language

In recent decades, fewer and fewer young Australians have made the decision to study a second language. Recent data suggests that only 12% of year 12 students study a second language, compared with 40% in the 1960s.

I, too, graduated high school as stubbornly monolingual and convinced that I was destined to remain that way. Thanks to a number of amazing international study and scholarship opportunities, including the UWA Boediono Scholarship and the Australian Government New Colombo Plan, I am delighted that this is no longer the case.

I would like to take the rest of this article to address some very specific advantages of learning a second language, which are not widely known or discussed. Particularly, I would like to highlight some of the lesser-known ways in which language skills can give young people a competitive edge in the early stages of their career.

Firstly, research suggests that people who study a language are better and more effective at studying other things, too, because learning a language exercises a part of your brain that is not necessarily otherwise used. It is particularly proven to improve a person’s memory and extend their attention span. This is directly applicable to strong performance in the workplace, particularly in jobs that operate within a traditional 8 hour office day.

Secondly, and very significantly, the experience of learning another language vastly improves a person’s wider communication abilities. Studies have shown that native monolingual English speakers cannot necessarily communicate well with other English speakers – specifically, the Quartz article “Being a native English speaker is globally useless…” explores the communication issues faced by people who have exclusively been exposed to different versions of “natural English”. Learning a second language naturally exposes a person to this issue and enables learners to more effectively communicate meaning.

Study of a foreign language significantly enhances a person’s mastery of proper English. I noticed this particularly through my study of Indonesian, which forced me to consider grammar rules and conventions of another language in great detail, and, in doing so, cement my understanding of my own language. In fact, the study of a language draws attention to all the mechanics of language in general, including things like sentence structure.

These communication techniques are extremely helpful in any workplace, especially those that require cross-cultural interaction (which is increasingly common). Furthermore, advanced English and communication skills are extremely advantageous for every professional interaction, especially job interviews and applications.

Research suggests that bilingual people also have enhanced problem solving abilities, partially because they are demonstrably more rational and more perceptive. These attributes are incredibly useful in any workplace, particularly ones that require teamwork, leadership, financial sense or business acumen. Using multilingualism as a means to develop these attributes is particularly valuable, because these skills are so crucial to a successful modern career but otherwise difficult to actively develop.

Lastly and most simply, language skills are useful to a young person’s career because there is a market need for them. Studies have shown that a deficiency in language skills can be costly for an economy, largely because of missed import or export opportunities. In Australia’s case, it is particularly important to source skilled workers who have mastered Asian languages, given our strong reliance on trade ties in our region. Basic economics suggests that skills with strong demand but weakening supply will be best valued by the market in the medium-to-long term.

The vast benefits of language study, particularly those pertaining to the job market, are incredibly underrated. Given the amazing opportunities available to young Australians, and the incredible payoffs, it is an investment opportunity that our generation cannot afford to ignore.

Find More About the New Colombo Plan Scholarship

Read stories from Asia Options readers who have successfully applied for and experienced the NCP program, including their tips, highlights and study programs.

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Rebecca Lawrence

Rebecca is an Australian Government New Colombo Plan Scholar who is finishing up an 18 month period of study and work in Asia. Next year, Rebecca intends to return to UWA to complete her Honours degree in Economics. She is particularly interested in international trade and investment, as well as cultural links between Australia and South-East Asia.

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