The U.S is known as the monolingual capital of the world. Only about one in five Americans consider themselves bilingual, while over 50% of Europeans do. And bilingualism is only expected to decrease over the years. The lack of a second language is greatly perpetuated by our own doing–cuts to foreign language programs in public schools and a skewed perception of English being an international language. In fact, English comes in third, after Chinese and Spanish, as the language with the largest number of people who speak it.
Fortunately, more people are starting to realize that we’re not only at a social disadvantage when it comes to not being bilingual, but the disadvantages can cross over economically and cognitively, as well.
Being bilingual can boost your competitiveness in the job market. Employers seek to develop business by acquiring new clients and contracts–near and far. Being bilingual gives you the ability to connect with more than one demographic. And learning Spanish can get you to build networks in 22 additional countries–that’s a lot of benefit. Having this skill can also put a candidate in a better position to negotiate salary, increasing an offer up to 20% over that of the monolingual applicant.
Cognitively, knowing a second language has been shown to increase multitasking skills, problem solving, and increases one’s ability to prioritize. The long-term effects are even more remarkable showing delayed onset of dementia by up to 5 years, brain images show that bilingual individuals have strong connections in various areas, which could help someone to cope with the disease for a longer period; before the problem becomes apparent. The good thing is that the age when one acquires a second language doesn’t determine the benefits. Connections in the brain start forming almost immediately as soon as one begins learning.
To reap the rewards of bilingualism, many have chosen to take their studies abroad, dedicating their time and money to language immersion programs that sell “a complete cultural experience” in alluring European destinations. The sad truth is, while practicing the language of your choice in these fairytale countries, you will likely hear the English language spoken to you in return. With English being the number one choice in a second language, it’s common to run into these issues when studying abroad.
Of course, their use of the English language with Americans isn’t intentionally damaging. Most of the time, the switch into English can be seen as familiar hospitality, since they’re approached by many different English speaking visitors. Others might be looking to practice their own language skills, while of course the rush of the city people can cause one to think they can “make it easier” for the person practicing, and themselves.
So, what’s the solution? Latin America. Spanish is the second most spoken language, not only in the U.S, but in the world. Though moving rapidly in its economic development, Latin America has sustained a distinct culture, almost completely unaffected by the English language.
Language immersion programs in Guatemala and Peru can cause culture shock for those who’ve never been thrusted into a world they couldn’t understand–and that’s exactly what’s needed when you’re determined to learn a new language. From unfamiliar sounds and inflections from the people conversing nearby, to foreign road signs and maps, never before tasted dishes, and even new and peculiar fashion.
Luckily, a responsible program wouldn’t allow you to go at it alone. Sure, it sounds like a thrilling adventure, but let’s be real–going to another country where you don’t know the language is like going to sleep and waking up on mars. A solid language immersion program should provide a solid network of people to rely on while you’re studying in country. And your network will likely be bilingual Spanish, so when the initial shock fades, you can remember you came to learn Spanish and request to be spoken to in Spanish instead.
Knowing that 99% of your local interactions will be in Spanish–because 99% of locals won’t know any other language–will give you the full immersion experience one looks for when trying to acquire a second language. That way, you can feel confident about your progress without the comfortability of using English.
Latin America is unparalleled in providing a unique experience for second language seekers from all over the world. Settling down for several weeks to join a Spanish language immersion program in one country, can get you on your way and over the border to a neighboring Spanish speaking country–all while exercising your brain muscles and increasing your worth, literally!