Saturday, March 03, 2012

Why study a foreign language?

One of my favourite books is Spring, the second book in the Torrents trilogy, by Ba Jin. While the first book in the series has been translated into English, neither of the sequels has. Likewise, one of my favourite tv series has never been given English subtitles. I have friends who do not speak English, and my university is taught entirely. in Chinese. When I travel through China, my knowledge of Chinese history and culture – gained largely alongside my study of thelanguage, has made me feel more connected to the places I visit. Even my daily life is made more pleasant through my numerous small interactions with the people I run into. Needless to say, my life today would not be possible had I never studied Chinese.

Studying Chinese has opened up avenues for me. Not so much in terms of what I do – after all, I can still watch television, read books and make friends without speaking the language – but instead with the range of people I can do that with. Speaking Chinese gives me over a billion potential friends, and it opens up a pathway for me to explore their culture and media.

Studying Chinese has also made me feel as though I’m a part of a community. Feeling a part of a community is much more than merely having friends. It is also the daily small talk you have with the lady who works at the convenience store, and the chat you have with the person next to you on the bus. It is also being able to talk with your friends’ family. These simple aspects of community are easily underappreciated, until one day you find yourself cut off from them. I realised this visiting my boyfriend’s family for Chinese New Year. His grandmother only speaks Malay, which I do not yet speak, and while the family did their best to keep me in the loop when they spoke with her, I still felt left out of the conversation. I know that my boyfriend’s grandmother is a kind and wonderful woman, who has had a great impact on his life, however our lack of a common language is a barrier that keeps me from getting to know her better. For me, this was a strong impetus to begin to learn Malay.

One interesting thing to note about these reasons to learn a language is that in most cases I only discovered that these benefits existed long after I studied. While today I value my friends, and can’t imagine living without Chinese books, television and music, had I never studied, I would never have known what I was missing. Indeed, it was many years into my study before I started speaking Chinese and immersing myself in the culture. Prior to this study, I was studying blind. I can completely understand why those who have never studied a foreign language can disregard its benefits, because I once did that too. When beginning language study, it seems like a long journey from zero proficiency to reading a novel or watching a movie without subtitles, and to compound this, without the right cultural context, it can be almost impossible to even know that the media you enjoy even exists.

Of course, on top of these reasons for study, there are the more “practical” reasons for learning: business, school grades, and so on, however learning a language is ultimately about people and cultures. Language connects you with people, like no other thing in this world, and I have found that by having a strong grasp of a second language, I have enriched my world – not just through the addition of new music, books and other media, but through the addition of new people to my life. The value that these people have added to my life is priceless, and without a doubt makes every second that I studied my languages worthwhile.


  1. I'm honestly surprised this needs to be explained to people, but then I've been learning foreign languages since I was 6 years old so it's kind of self-evident to me.

    Also, you forgot to mention that learning other languages has been scientifically proven to offer various cognitive benefits:

  2. Well, in predominantly English-speaking communities, I've quite commonly seen people react to the idea of studying foreign languages with "well everyone speaks English anyway, so why bother?" I haven't seen the same kind of attitude among non-native English speakers, which I attribute in part to the fact that the dominance of England and America over the last few centuries has made English the highest "status" language. Plenty of people consider that to be "enough", and never really stop to consider what other cultures might have to offer.

    It doesn't really help either that a large number of native English speakers are geographically isolated from other cultures as well. Living in Australia, people have to fly for four hours straight before they even get out of the country. The closest Australian city to my hometown is about 800km away. Compare this situation to Europe, where you go 800km in any direction and you've left the country. Even the foreigners in Australia are usually foreign students, who tend to have decent English skills, so most people don't perceive that they'll ever have a need to learn a second language.

    Yeah, I know about the cognitive benefits. I've also read that learning a second language can also slow the progress of Alzheimers as well, so if you have a family history of dementia, taking up a second language is one of the best things you could do for your long-term health.

  3. I imagine that's because I am not a native English speaker, but I've never seen anyone here dispute the value of learning languages. But, of course, I currently live in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, so I can see how this may not be the case elsewhere.

  4. Well, to be fair, the "everyone speaks English anyway" crowd, while common, are still a minority in Australia. Far more common is a general agreement that learning languages is a Good Thing, which is accompanied on a personal level by a lack of willingness to put the time, money and energy into actually learning a language oneself.

  5. Over here, most people also think foreign languages are a Good Thing (if only to talk to that Mexican gardener), and most schools teach some foreign languages, but people are still lazy and don't care. But then again, they don't care to learn, say, math beyond a basic level, so that's hardly surprising.

  6. Yeah, pretty much the same as in Australia, except Australia doesn't even have any Mexicans.