Why Bother Learning Another Language?

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.

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16 thoughts on “Why Bother Learning Another Language?

  • Thank you for the great post, I agree people who think that learning a new language will be fun will never stick through to the end. People need a reason so they will be motivated enough to persist…something like your boss saying that you need to learn this language or you’ll be fired should do the trick.

  • What a highly opinionated, inadequate, and horrible post. This post assumes that people’s desire to learn other languages is based purely in necessity. Those who truly desire to learn other languages do so because of the intellectual challenge and the broadened opportunities which become available when communicating with others, in general.

    My personal desire to learn other languages, particularly Spanish, rests in my intellectual inferiority complex. Is this reason enough for you?

    Can you really imagine yourself in a room full of people who are communicating in another language, yet you have no understanding of what they are saying? Would you really expect everyone to communicate in English to satisfy your intellectual ignorance of would you rather conform? If you expect the former, shame on you and your ego trip.

    I wonder if this author is multi-lingual? If not, he has no authority or basis to write on the subject. Perhaps this post was written because of the authors own source of frustration in his attempts to learn another language?

    This post would have been best positioned if the author offered alternatives to learning another language. He did not. It is inferred that one should instead spend their time watching, Honey Boo Boo. Really?

    The intention of this post, it seems, is to only ruffle the feathers of those who desire to learn another language. I can’t believe you allowed such a post, Sandy.

    By the way, there are several alternatives to learn another language without paying a bunch of money. Try the following:

    Mango for Libraries
    BBC Languages
    Spanishdict (for Spanish, of course)
    Open Culture, etc.
    Free course downloads via iTunes

    Now, as far as learning effectively at a minimum cost and time (listening while commuting to/from work, while working out, doing chores), I recommend any of Michel Thomas’ audio recordings.

    • It’s his opinion and I’m allowing different sides of the coin as a counterpoint to my own opinions.

      Personally I speak English, a passable Spanish and a few words here and there in Japanese…enough to ask for the bathroom! 🙂 At some point I knew some Mandarian but haven’t had anyone to speak with so it went bye-bye. Oh and I know the American Sign Language alphabet. Language and the ability to learn different languages intrigues me. As Americans, I think that we do ourselves an injustice by NOT learning more languages.

      • I agree, but it’s his opinion substantiated by…nothing. The post is merely, don’t learn another language because it’s not worth it, which is, again, based on…nothing.

        I agree that if you don’t use a language you will most likely use it. I learned Italian (enough to carry out decent conversations) when I lived in Italy about 10 years ago, but I can barely get past a few words these days. Spanish, however, is all around me. I’ll always have someone to speak Spanish with. 🙂

    • Ah good. Kids, pay attention. What we have here is what I’m going to call a “language snob.” As in, learning another language is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE HISTORY OF EVER.

      “Can you really imagine yourself in a room full of people who are communicating in another language, yet you have no understanding of what they are saying?”

      Because this totally happens in real life. It happened to me like 3 times, just last week. Seriously, if this happens, it sure doesn’t happen often enough to justify the thousands of hours it takes to be decent in another language.

      “I wonder if this author is multi-lingual? If not, he has no authority or basis to write on the subject. Perhaps this post was written because of the authors own source of frustration in his attempts to learn another language?”

      I did not “fail” learning another language. I still have a great deal to learn about communicating in English before moving onto another language.

      Also, according to Romeo’s logic, you cannot have an opinion about something unless you’ve experienced it. Good to know.

      “This post would have been best positioned if the author offered alternatives to learning another language. He did not. It is inferred that one should instead spend their time watching, Honey Boo Boo.”

      Read the post closer, Sparky. The Honey Boo Boo crack was a joke at my expense.

      Learning new things can be good. But, as the post inferred, you should look at the tangible benefits of what you’re learning. If an American spends 99.99% of their life within 30 miles of their house, then there are more important things to learn than another language.

      If you feel the need to learn it because you feel intellectually challenged by it, then knock yourself out. I need better reasons than that.

      Anyway, I’m bored. Nelson out.

      • I didn’t say that it’s the most important thing ever. My point is that I would never, ever tell someone that it is a waste of time to learn anything. Philosophers do exist in this world, Nelson.

        “The word philosophy is of Greek origin and means literally ‘love of or friendship for wisdom.” Wisdom refers traditionally to a kind of general intelligence or capacity for judging effectively in diverse circumstances” (Rosen, The Philosopher’s Handbook). Adding another language to one’s knowledge base isn’t necessary, but helps in this endeavor.

        Some people like to learn things…just because, including multiple languages.

        Recommended reading: My Intellectual Inferiority Complex (http://romeoclayton.com/my-intellectual-inferiority-complex/)

  • While I am glad that you voiced your own opinion on this I am going to have to disagree with you. Some people want to learn new things because it satisfies them. Any time you can grow and learn something new it’s never a waste. I remember a man in his 60’s or 70’s who would show up to one of my college business classes. I found out that he was not enrolled, but he was taking the classes to enhance his knowledge on something new.

  • While I appreciate your opinion, I find this post a little egotistical and short-minded. English isn’t even the most widely spoke language in world although it’s one of the more common secondary languages. You can’t expect everyone to speak it wherever you go. What happens when you travel to different countries for recreational instead of business purposes?

    I agree that many people “bite off more than they can chew,” but I’m sure they still get some benefit from the attempt…even if it’s just expanding their minds, working a different part of the brain and experiencing a part of another culture.

  • Well I guess you could argue what is the point of learning anything that you won’t particularly use. Why learn beach volleyball when I’l never be a pro? Because it’s fun! And it brings me joy! And I get exercise! Just like any hobby, there will be people who jump in without thinking things through and spend money and never use the program, but people do that every day in many ways. Think of all the people who join a gym in January and never use it. For me, I’d love to learn French-just for the hell of it!

  • I can see both sides of this opinion. Living here in the U.S., I think we often have a VERY outdated view that we are purely the center of the world and that everybody is clamoring to be like us and “Americanized”. I don’t feel that way, but believe me – many people still do.

    So, I do think that it’s important to take time to think globally, and consider the value to embracing other cultures and thought processes. Having said that, from the perspective of using one’s time wisely, I think that learning a new language is something best served for being a hobby. I say that from the reality that if you do know English and that’s it, you can effectively get by anywhere in the world. So, learning a second (or third, fourth, etc) language is simply a “want” rather than a “need”.

    I definitely won’t go so far as to say it’s a waste of time to learn a new language, and “you’d be much better off not to bother” as the author of the post says. It can help us grow personally, and does have value. I would like to be able to speak 1 or 2 different languages in particular. But I do think that it’s something that isn’t necessary to do, and is worthy of ‘hobby’ status for somebody who is a native English speaker. Do it if it makes you happy, not because you feel it’s necessary to learn a 2nd language, because it isn’t.

  • Wow, I didn’t expect so much disagreement.

    Unlike the other commenters, I’m not going to disagree with your basic premise. However, I do want to list some reasons that I personally want to learn new languages:
    * Spanish – to tutor math students in my neighborhood public schools, many of whom know much more Spanish than English at this point.
    * ASL – It’s a whole different kind of language, excellent for if you are on the other side of a window, you are someplace too loud to hear (bars), you are someplace where you’re supposed to be silent (churches, plays), your mouth is full but your hands aren’t, you’ve had a complicated trip to the dentist, or you go deaf as you age (and then can also no longer see well enough to lip read). Oh, and I might meet deaf people, so I may as well go for the sign language that the deaf in my country use. (And oral languages are better when you’re driving, on the phone, and your hands are full. And written languages are better when you’re not there in person, though you could videotape yourself speaking in an oral or sign language).

    I’d also really like to know foreign languages when I visit foreign countries (so I do learn a little, which is handy even where most people speak English, which so far are the only places I’ve been). But I rarely travel to foreign countries.

    I’d like to know foreign languages when I’m reading books with phrases from other languages in them, but there are a lot of these languages, so that’s not going to happen.

    I’d like to know the language of the movie I’m watching, but I sure watch movies from a lot of different countries, so that can’t happen; as you mention, I’m lucky that most movies I found out about are available with English subtitles and/or dubbing.

    It’s also totally fun to learn new accents and to learn interesting things about other languages (like how German uses way more compound words than we do–the word for glove would be handshoe in English). But memorizing a million words and grammar rules is not fun for me, so I agree that I may as well focus on learning other things that are more fascinating to me during my finite time on this earth.

  • I also felt this post was below Sandy’s typical standards. Her posts always read as informative and witty. This guest post started off being defensive, as if expecting (wanting?) backlash, so congrats if that was your aim. I found it to be a very bizarre case of NIMBYism.

    As a (fellow?) Canadian, I studied French for much of my elementary and secondary years (optional after grade nine), and have found it useful during my travels. I’ve used it to communicate throughout Europe, even in non-French speaking countries, because I have the basis to understand other written languages, and even on a trip to the Dominican Republic, when it was the common tongue that I shared with our guide.

    I also grew up speaking another language than English, so I do see it as part of a greater appreciation of culture.

    On a related note, if you are taking the time to learn the basics of a language to further your career opportunities, that would be an indication to your employer of your willingness to understand the expectations of potential foreign partners. There are many cultures around that world that have very different viewpoints on ideas of respect, social hierarchy, etc. that you may not agree on but need to be cognizant of, should you want to build successful relationships.
    Having worked in economic development and been involved in overseas meetings – not everyone speaks English, and those who can communicate between parties are very valuable assets.

  • Wow! You guys really hated this post! I’m surprised that you do.

    This was just one person’s opinion and meant to foster discussion. I do realize that many individuals will never leave their home countries and may not NEED to learn another language, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I do respect his ability to have his own views though…especially as a Canadian where both English and French are spoken.

  • I personally wish i could invest the time to learn as many languages as possible. I want to travel a lot, and I want to be able to defend myself in a conversation. the best way to learn a language is by using it, which is why i haven’t bothered. what’s the point of learning portugues if i don’t have anyone to talk to? How would i even know that I’m pronouncing words right or even get good practice. instead, i shall invest that valueble time in learning to play the piano!

  • Unless living abroad, where learning the local language might be a necessity for getting by, learning a second language as a practical skill IS a waste of time for MOST native English speakers (as a hobby, different story).
    English is the lingua franca of international business. Knowing Mandarin is not even necessary for doing business in China — just hire a translator, they work for cheap.
    The author’s logic is sound. Time is limited, use it wisely.

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