Language and … personal development?


A good 70 percent of my students are professionals. A good 70 percent of my students want to learn a foreign language as an extra skill that will advance their career. A good 70 percent of those get something more in return.

How do you feel about made up statistics?

I thought so. But at least my guess is informed by the years of teaching and years of asking all sorts of people “Why do you want to learn another language? What’s in it for you?”

The truth is this: I set out to find research about the effect that learning a foreign language has on personal development. I found no such study. If you come across one, please send it my way. Professional development is clearly impacted by being bilingual or multilingual. But how does learning a new language make us grow and evolve on a personal level? Does it change the way we communicate? Does it change the way we view challenges and set goals? Does it force us outside of our comfort zones? Does it open up new ways of perceiving the world around us?

Let me tell you a few stories. Stories about people that I’ve worked with and the transformations I saw in them while they were learning a foreign language.

Let’s start with Aimee.

I first started working with Aimee in the middle of her two year long maternity leave from a market research position for large hospitality group. Aimee was a hard-working career woman who loved what she was doing for a living (a typical Sociology major), but had found herself stuck at home with a toddler and little intellectual stimulation. She was at an upper-intermediate level of English and always thirsty to learn more.

Honestly, Aimee was, at the time, my most advanced student. She was sharp, quick and confident. I thought the main reason Aimee had for wanting for work on her English skills was just to have some interaction with an adult while being stuck at home during the day.

I loved working with her because she wouldn’t say no to any challenge, and she would diligently do her homework.

Yes, your teacher really cares about these two things.

I started to slowly introduce advanced and proficiency materials into our lessons: a lesson based on a TED Talk here, an article from The Economist there, a “look what British skit I found, let’s see how much you understand” playful email a week all the way over there.

Aimee just took the ideas and ran with them. We spent an hour talking about Jamie Oliver’s TED talk on teaching children about food and how Aimee would apply it to raising her child. We would connect Charlemagne’s blog on The Economist with sociology ideas she remembered from college. Then, Aimee started doing these things by herself. First, she showed me a new British series she was into  (It was Smack the Pony but don’t Google it if you’re at work). She couldn’t understand everything, but she got most of the jokes and if she didn’t, she asked me about it (if you want to make your EFL teacher blush during a lesson, do just that).

Another time, Aimee was really excited that she could watch The Hunger Games in English, without subtitles or dubbing. Her favorite new words in English were “chatterbox” (usually to refer to her now-learning-to-speak-and-will-never-shut-up-but-look-how-cute daughter) and “brick and mortar” (simply because it’s so descriptive).

We continued to work together even after Aimee returned to work. She confessed that studying a foreign language, and going in depth with it, helped her in her job tremendously. Having worked with metrics her entire career made Aimee really good at goal-setting and working through objectives, but studying a foreign language opened her up to new ideas, that she would not have listened to or read in her native language. She took some of these ideas and applied them in her marketing department. She took other ideas and started up a conversation with her new German expat manager. Some of them became seeds for new projects, both personal and professional. Aimee now feels more fulfilled in her career because she has the freedom to explore side projects at work. She’s also the one to start a conversation about Smack the Pony (yes, she still watches that).

I watched her go from a fluent but still insecure English speaker to a fully fluent and can debate anyone under the table confident speaker.

The three short ideas from Aimee’s journey:
1.     Be curious.
2.    Capitalize on your strengths.
3.    Always apply what you learn.

*The names I use are slightly changed, but the stories are 100 percent real.

Image: Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1801), currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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