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Why and How to Learn a Second Language

"To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages," Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, declared at the Foreign Language Summit, in 2010.

Only about 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53 percent of Europeans can converse in a second language.

Learning another language is hard work, but it's fun and the rewards are innumerable. Here's why you should learn, when you can learn and how you can learn another tongue.

Why Learn a Foreign Language?

1. Earn More Pay

If you speak a second language you might qualify for Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPB). FLPB is for officers and enlisted members receiving basic pay.

Proficient speakers of critical or mission specific languages — Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Dari, for example — can earn a minimum of $100 to a maximum of $1,000 per month in addition to their base pay.

See if you qualify and learn more about FLPB here.

2. Make Yourself More Employable after the Military

The federal government is looking for a few good linguists. The FBI, NSA, U.S. Customs and the Pentagon continue to hire civilians who speak mission critical languages. Pay ranges from $25,000 to $65,000 a year.

In the business world, companies continue to hire folks who can speak Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and a host of other languages.

3. For the Experience

If you know another language, you are able to live another life.

You're not just limited to befriending English speakers, but instead you have increased your potential friend pool. A whole new world and a whole new way of thinking opens up before you. Additionally, foreigners will greatly appreciate you, even if you only know smatterings of their language — this was my experience in Afghanistan when I said my first Dari sentence, "This is a dog!"

The beneficial experience doesn't only come in knowing another language, but also in the process of learning — it takes work. You'll grow in the virtues of patience and discipline and enjoy the fruit of your labor along the way.

When Can You Learn?

1. Today!

You're never too old to learn another language. But, I know what you are thinking — "I just don't have the time."

The key — start small. Set realistic goals and keep in mind why you want to learn another language. If it's a hobby, there's no need to pressure yourself. If you want to advance your career, set milestones and make language learning a habit. It's like running, the more you do it the easier it becomes. Set aside at least 30 minutes a day to your language, and stick to it. You'd be surprised what you can accomplish after six dedicated months.

2. High School and College

There's no better time for your child to learn another language as when they are in high school or college. For the major western languages, students can study abroad in Europe or Latin America. With a little work, they can find scholarships to help pay for their time abroad. Some foreign governments, such as Germany's, want to give you money to study in their country.

ROTC cadets might be able to get a stipend for studying critical languages such as Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.

3. Childhood

Kids pick up languages like a sponge soaks up water, and there are a host of benefits for them when they learn another language — from higher test scores to having a bigger view of the world. Knowing a second language as a child will make it easier for them to learn additional foreign languages as they grow up.

Many elementary schools offer Spanish courses. Also, this would be a good time to learn another language with your child.

How Can You Learn?

1. Defense Language Institute

The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) is a premier training organization for the Department of Defense. Training is open to any MOS and every type of service member. DLIFLC can provide training in 24 different languages and there are around 3,500 students attending the school at any given time.

2. Internet

The internet is a goldmine of language learning resources. From YouTube Videos to grammar exercises to free flashcard programs — there's almost an unlimited number of tools to bookmark in your browser.

You can also find conversation partners or tutors online to help you along. Websites such as Conversation Exchange and Language For Exchange help you to find foreign language speakers interested in improving their English. These following websites, among others, offer online language tutors: Verbal Planet, Transparent Language and My Foreign Language Tutor.

There are many, many more websites on the Internet that can help you learn a language — just search and find what works for you.

3. Library

Don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars on grammar and vocabulary exercise books? Visit your local library and you're bound to find bookshelves dedicated to the most popular languages. You might be able to find audio discs to listen to there as well.

4. Additional Tips and Resources

By no means is this article exhaustive of language learning tips, strategies and resources. If you're looking for more practical suggestions based on multilingual speakers' experiences than the book How to Learn any Language and the website are good resources.

What language would you like to learn and why?