Some People Think Language-Learning Isn’t for Everybody. These People Are Wrong.
Language-learning can change your life at best, make you a better person at worst.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Everybody should learn a foreign language.
School failed most of us when it comes to learning languages. It scarred many and made them think language-learning was hard. That’s some well-done inception if you ask me.
In reality, learning a language isn’t hard. It only takes time. That’s it. Nothing more. That’s why when I see videos like this one, from a polyglot, telling others they might not need to learn a language, my heart breaks a little.
Everybody, without exception, should learn a language. It’s for the best. Not just for them, but for the entire world.
It’s Amazingly Simple
Learning a language is so easy we all did it once before we could even read or write, two things we do daily. The difference between learning a language as a child and as an adult comes down to one aspect: our impatience to wait to see results right away.
As babies, we didn’t think about it. We just practiced and took our time. Then, one day, we could say a few words. A few months later, it was broken sentences. A few years later, we could hold conversations. Decades later, we all know some very specified vocabulary only people in our specialty know them. Have you ever heard of a “fuzzy match”? I hadn’t either, until I worked in the localization industry. Everything is a matter of exposure.
We’ve all given up on learning a language at a certain point. Even polyglots. I gave up on 10 languages. There’s nothing wrong with giving up a few times. The goal is to not give up at least one.
If you think you don’t have time, you’re probably not noticing all the time you do have. And even if you are busy, you can still find bits of time daily for 5 to 10 minutes of study.
Consistent minutes of study largely outweigh inconsistent long study sessions.
Take your time. When you choose to learn a language for the long run and stop hoping to be fluent within a few months, then you get to enjoy the journey.
You Become Curious
A good language-learner is a language-learner that’s consistent. A better language-learner is one that’s curious.
Learning a new language means discovering new things. It means unveiling new ways of thinking, new opinions, new aspects of this wide planet we live on. The people who the most proficiently foreign languages can’t refrain from digging into some weird quirk of the country where the language is spoken.
As a French person, I’ve grown up in an individualist society. Learning Japanese was how I was first introduced to collectivism. I had studied it at school but never understood the length at which it impacts how people live their daily lives. It changes everything.
Similarly, the “Siesta” in Spain changes how they live their lives. The cultures of gaming and of Noreabang (Korean karaoke) in Korea both impact drastically how Koreans live their lives as well. Hell, when France had a “Ministry of Supply”, the food provided was bread, butter, cheese, and pasta. Would you consider this “first necessity” in your country?
When you first start learning a language, you should already be curious about some aspects of the country’s language and/or culture. But don’t make the error of thinking you’ll never get more curious about the culture.
Even if you’re only slightly curious now, you’ll become a lot more as you spend time learning the language.
All English Can Do Is Help You Survive
Is your goal in life to survive or to thrive? I’d say the best would be to thrive. It’s to live and enjoy an exciting life.
If you think you can get by anywhere in the world using only English, you’re almost right. In most tourist areas, you definitely could. In less-traveled areas, you probably somehow could. In the deep countryside, you wouldn’t.
The reason to learn a language, however, shouldn’t be to survive the deep countryside. The goal is to enjoy more every place you travel to.
During my five years living in Tokyo, I met countless foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese at all. I met many who could speak it a little. And I also met a good bunch who spoke it well. Want to know the ones who enjoyed their lives the most? The last group.
Because I spoke Japanese, I was able to spend a night in a bar that usually refused foreigners. Because I spoke Japanese, I was invited by random Japanese people to meals or shown around hidden gems. Because I spoke Japanese, I found my second job in Tokyo without much struggle.
Even if you’re not highly proficient in the language, locals will always welcome you with more warmth when you tried learning their language. No matter the country.
“Getting by” in English may be possible, but it’s also passing by an opportunity for magnificent experiences.
And, no, machine translation is not a good backup plan. The lack of effort to use it means locals won’t treat you any better than if you try to speak to them in English.
Learning a Language is a Need
It might seem like you don’t need to learn a language right now, but you do. That’s a fact I struggle to justify because I think it’s best understood naturally as you learn, but let me try.
The best reason to start learning a language is to have a need for it. It could be your partner’s native language. Or you might need it for work. Or maybe you’ve read an author’s book and really want to read the rest that hasn’t gotten translated yet.
You need to find a reason to start. That’s for sure.
But even if the reason isn’t a need right now, it will become. As you learn a language, you discover a lot about the country’s culture but also about yourself.
You evolve as you learn a foreign language. You even develop a second personality for that language, not based on the language itself but on your experience with it, as Alex Rawlings explained in his talk at the 2019 Polyglot Conference. That’s why he answered the question “Why do we shift personality?” this way:
“There is a mismatch between the linguist personality that we have in our first language and the linguistic personality that we have adopted in our additional language.”
Either way, learning a language changes your life and, in the long-run, it changes the lives of people around you. Slowly, as more people learn foreign languages, the world evolves.
It becomes more understanding. Racism decreases because it’s only possible to be racist towards people you don’t understand and learning a language helps to understand those you didn’t understand before.
If learning a language doesn’t feel like a need right now, you’ll realize later it really was one.
If there’s just one thing you should take away from this article, it’s this one:
Everybody needs to learn a foreign language.
You don’t need to be fluent in three months. You don’t need to spend all your weekends learning a language. You don’t need to give up your other hobbies to focus on it. You don’t even need to aim for perfection. You just need to be consistent and learn slowly.
Learning languages changed my life. It also changed the lives of everybody I know who chose to do it. I hope you do too.
If you think it’ll be boring, rest assured. You can turn it into a fun journey. I never liked language classes in school and now speak 6 languages. I would have never done it if it wasn’t fun.
Be ready to embark on a magnificent journey.
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