Sometimes, in life, you’re forced to learn things you might not have expected. Maybe you’ll be offered a promotion at work, but only if you learn some skill you previously thought was silly. Maybe you’ll be at school somewhere, and suddenly discover an enjoyable (and lucrative) career plan is just a few skills/classes away. Or maybe you just want to learn poetry so you can impress some hot girl with how sensitive you are. Whatever, I’m not here to judge.
At some point though, education becomes an investment that just isn’t worth the return. In fact, this blogger would argue that most of the time it comes up short, since people are a little too quick to deem something being worth the cost just because you learned something from it. Writing something off as educational has psychological value, but little practical value. How often have you chalked something up to a learning experience?
I understand our desire to continuously learn. When I’m not busy making awkward advances on the ladies, you can usually find me reading something or watching some marginally educational content on TV. Honey Boo Boo is educational, right? It’s on The Learning Channel.
Lately though, it seems like one educational move is dwarfing all others, at least from my perspective. As you probably figured out from the title, it’s learning another language. Up here in Canada, French is a popular choice, as are Mandarin, German, Spanish and maybe Klingon. The afflicted run out and get themselves some software and maybe a tutor, and have at it, with all the gusto of the hungry at an all you can eat buffet. And, much like an overzealous eater, they often bite off more than they can chew.
If I had a nickel for every time I watched someone plunk down hundreds of dollars on materials to learn another language, I’d have enough to learn, well, another language. Which is reason number 1 why you shouldn’t bother – you’ll most likely fail at it. Learning another language isn’t something you can master in an afternoon, or even an intense weekend of study. You’re going to need months to at least be passable at it, and years until you can actually get to the point where you can embrace yourself in the culture. That’s a pretty big commitment for something that isn’t a necessary skill to learn.
What exactly are the benefits to learning a different language? The advantages in business situations is often brought up as the chief advantage. If you learn Mandarin, people argue, you’ll immediately impress our new Chinese
rulers business partners, which will give you a competitive advantage over your non-Mandarin speaking competitors. Which sounds great in theory, but is pretty foolish in actual real life situations.
How many educated Chinese do you think speak English? I don’t even have to look it up, I already know the answer – ALL OF THEM. If you want to do business what the Chinese, you don’t have to worry about speaking Mandarin. They’ve already beaten you to it by learning English. Why bother learning their language when communication isn’t a problem.
As English speakers, we already hold a distinct advantage over people who raised speaking another language – we know the language everyone else wants to learn. Sure, if you learn a different language you’ll sometimes, in certain situations, get an advantage over other people, but how often do those advantages really come up? Once again, we get down to the question of whether the advantage is worth all the time committed. And, guess what? It’s mostly not.
I was recently in Toronto, where I happened to share a subway ride with a cute pharmacist from Ireland. As we talked about our respective homes, she asked if all Canadians spent time in school learning French. Where I live, I told her, it was an option that I declined to take. She then told me all about how, in Ireland, they’re forced to spend years learning Gaelic, a language that hasn’t been widely used for a hundred years.
I asked her to say something for me in Gaelic and she could barely remember the basics. Everybody in Ireland thinks learning Gaelic is a waste. Why? Because nobody sees the advantage to it. Sure, plenty of people speak Mandarin, or German or whatever, but not on this side of the ocean.
Unless you’re going to be spending extended time in a country, learning the language is just pointless busy work. Sure, education is good, it’s just what you learn is often suspect. And when it comes to another language, you’d be much better off not to bother.