There is a joke that goes: “bilingual” is someone who speaks two languages, and “trilingual” is someone who speaks three. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American.
However stereotypical it is, the joke holds some truth. Most Americans who speak a second language do so because of family origins, but even then it is common that the second language won’t be carried beyond the first generation. Many Americans who do learn a foreign language in high school or college, for example, don’t tend to achieve a high level of proficiency, and are unable to use it the real world. Yesterday, at a French meeting on campus, a Tunisian student joked with me about how American students, when asked to speak the foreign language they “know,” will immediately start apologizing for how “rusty” they’ve been.
Americans most likely feel discouraged to learn a second language because most the world tries to learn English, so they know their language needs will be accommodated abroad. In fact there is great benefit in having English as the international language: it gains the power to not only connect native English speakers with those who are not, but also non-native English speakers with other non-natives. So, a French person can speak with a Russian person without either having to learn the other’s original language.
Nevertheless, learning a second language well remains key to ensuring a genuine, wholesome experience abroad. Studying abroad is, above all, about academic, cultural, social, and personal exploration. But you cannot truly and deeply understand foreigners, their culture and their space if you cannot speak their language. Even if both you and the foreigner speak English, one of you will be at a disadvantage when trying to understand the other.
A language is closely attached to a country’s culture: the manner in which natives express themselves, the peculiarities and uniqueness of saying something in a specific language, the proximity (or lack thereof) between speakers that the language allows for, and many other cultural components that can only be experienced if you learn the foreign language. Knowing their language also opens other doors, such as being able to speak to those who don’t know English.
Of course, there will still exist a language barrier between you and them even if you speak their language (unless you master it enough). The goal is not to fully fill in the gap, but to have the right tools to build a bridge above it. If the foreigner speaks English but you don’t speak their language, it’s like the bridge is only built halfway. How do you tackle moments when the foreigner can only express herself well in her language, and doesn’t know how to explain what she means in English? What if she’s trying to show you more of her culture through her language, like an inside joke that can’t be translated into English?
Learning a language isn’t easy, but it opens a whole new world of possibilities that don’t exist in quite the same way in another language. If your goal when studying abroad is to truly immerse yourself in the culture, to open up your mind and connect with the people, then speaking their language (in whatever level, as long as you continue to improve) is imperative. Otherwise, you will be automatically and/or permanently labeled as “the foreigner,” making the distance between you and them much harder to bridge.