When you’re younger, it may seem like learning a foreign language is just a hazing ritual. Memorizing verb tenses and vocabulary words and acting out dialogues is something every high school student suffers through but no one actually learns from, right? Later on in life, though, many people regret not trying harder to develop a second language while in school.

A foreign language can be incredibly useful for business and travel, as well as for community work in areas with high immigrant populations. There are truly few people who couldn’t benefit from speaking a foreign language – but according to a report in Forbes Magazine, only 18% of Americans can speak a second language, compared to 53% of Europeans.

In all fairness to the youth of America past and present, language learning in middle school, high school, or even college isn’t approached in a way to inspire students or generate results. When you memorize the conjugations of “avoir,” you’re going to forget them again unless you get an opportunity to put them to use.

Many school districts across America have begun to address this problem by creating language immersion schools, where students learn either a foreign language (generally Spanish, French, or Mandarin Chinese) or a local indigenous language (mostly in areas with strong American Indian communities). In these schools, young students learn their usual curriculums—but in both English and the second language. As bilingual families have long known, children are adept at learning new languages – partially because they are not just learning the second language, but rather living it. The same applies to students enrolled in language immersion schools across America.

What about those of us who weren’t so lucky to complete elementary school curricula in two languages? As an adult, it can be difficult to take enough time out of busy schedules to develop foreign language proficiency. Learning a language takes time, and that amount of time increases greatly when you’re constantly inundated by English.

Luckily, there are options, even for busy professionals. Whether or not you had the chance to study abroad while you were in college, you can now. A number of educational organizations offer study abroad courses for adults and professionals. In many cases you can tailor these courses to your particular needs, whether you’re a retiree who wants to spend a few hours each morning learning Spanish and then relax on the beach in Costa Rica, or an up-and-coming international businesswoman who needs to develop Mandarin proficiency and learn about the Chinese business world as quickly as possible. With these programs, you can easily use your vacation time to grow as a person by developing a new skill.

More importantly, language immersion can help to bridge the gap between cultures. With these programs, you can travel to any number of countries, live with a local family, and learn to speak the language. When you’re not staying in a hotel where everyone speaks English, you’ll notice aspects of a place that you never noticed before. What do people actually eat for dinner after a day at work? What is a local grocery store like? How are family dynamics like? What do people do on weekends? Where’s the best place to get drinks? What do they think about foreigners, or Americans? These are the kind of questions guide books entirely skip over, but which you’ll find help you to see the country and the people as real individuals instead of stereotypes.

Learning a second language while traveling abroad is an opportunity to grow as a person, to challenge your own beliefs about the world, and to learn to appreciate other people’s experiences. Breaking out of your routine is easy when you’re surrounded by a new environment, and a new language can help you see the world in new ways. Regardless of whether you flunked high school Spanish, you’ll find learning a language to much more exciting when you can actually use it to accomplish something in your daily life – even if it’s as simple as buying a bus ticket in German or striking up a conversation with the waiter in your new favorite restaurant in Spain.

Author's Bio: 

Emily French is an intern at EF Education First who loves travel and learning new languages. EF provides study abroad programs for adults of all ages and students ages 16+. EF Study Abroad Programs encourage participants to travel abroad and learn a new language through immersion. Founded in 1965, EF has spent nearly 50 years advocating for cultural exchange and global awareness.