Issue 62 • Week of March 26, 2023 / Updated May 15, 2023

Empathy has been pronounced the skill of the future that is the most valuable for leadership. Those are strong claims backed by research that are making headlines. However, equally important is that empathy also improves your friendships and just makes you an overall better person.

This critical aptitude appears nowhere within standardized testing, but there is an opportunity to cultivate it within an academic environment through bilingualism. Learning another language is among the most concrete ways to boost empathy – represented in fictional characters from comedy to romance to sci-fi who are able to overcome communication hurdles to find common ground.

Unfortunately, Americans are increasingly challenged to connect with people from other cultures and the fact that almost no one in the US who is bilingual acquires fluency at school puts our future at risk. Recent studies estimate the number of citizens who speak a second language at 20%, which declines to 10% when narrowed to those who are fluent. Compare this to Europe, where 92% of students speak another language.

English-only speakers are at a distinct disadvantage since employees in the US who speak a second language can earn up to 20% more on the job. An analysis of 63 studies has proven bilingual people have better attention, working memory, and ability to abstract. Other researchers have highlighted that knowing another language delays dementia by up to 4 years and helps people recover from brain injuries faster. Of course, travel becomes more rewarding for polyglots, too, as 75% of the world population does not speak any English at all.

Benefits do not just occur later in life, either. Over 25 different studies show that pursuing at least one other language improves test scores in other subjects. In the government's haste to focus on a few core subjects to improve reading and math skills by narrowing curricula with No Child Left Behind, we have actually made it harder for kids to learn overall.

The origin of this week's movement to recognize an International Day of Multilingualism celebrates the ways that language can influence other fields by honoring the Rosetta Stone discovery. The archaeological treasure from March 27, 196 BC allowed linguists to decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which opened a window into three thousand years of history and culture.

How can we help more people to learn another language?

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