你好! I have been studying Chinese with extra vigour recently, and I have to say that watching a page of seemingly meaningless characters turn into a page of slightly less meaningless characters gives a real sense of accomplishment and a true moment of ‘I-did-this’-ness. Why am I learning Chinese? For that matter, why am I learning the traditional and not the simplified version? Well, I live in a country where traditional Mandarin is the official language, and so firstly it would be darn rude of me not to, and secondly, the opportunities to learn it from native speakers for relatively cheap are rife. My cup doth overfloweth.
Having learned languages in the past (French and German), and having been an English teacher (or as the industry would have us call ourselves “language enabler”) I have a pretty rounded view of what it means to learn a new language from both views of the whiteboard.
Why do people learn a second language? For work? For social motives? To emigrate? For fun? For brain food…?
I come from a city in England with a strong mix of cultures from around the world. It is a place full of pockets of different cultures, which is only heightened by the constant stream of foreign students who head to the city for either of the universities, or to study English in one of the billion or so language schools.
It shouldn’t be forgotten however that each of those students is fluent in another language, and that English is their second language. That is a whole group of people who get to travel to a distant land for work or knowledge.
Why shouldn’t we, as English speakers, give ourselves the great wonderful experience?
Now we know some of the reasons why people do learn a language. Here are some reasons why we should learn a new language…
Who isn’t impressed by the sight of a foreigner, in any land, being able to bust out some mad local lingo? It’s a skill that takes time to master, but once you have a language, you can channel the Fonzie and be the cool kid everyone wants to hang out with.
If not, it will at least impress the locals, who you will have a slightly better conversation with after you’ve shown you’re not just there to try and speak English louder and louder until you make your point. You’re actually trying. My bad Chinese is often a wonderful icebreaker with old ladies in markets.
You gain perspective on another culture
Who hasn’t heard the one about Eskimos and how many words they’ve got for snow? Though this popular theory was thoroughly debunked recently, the idea remains the same; a people’s language reflects their culture. Culture comes from the environment, the history, the traditions, and the people themselves. If culture is the story, the language is obviously the words used to tell that story. History, and the journey of it’s people, is inevitably locked in it’s words. By learning the language, you are learning the culture. It’s inescapable. Just the fact that they have words for certain things means that those things are common, or were common, enough to warrant verbal expression.
Living in another culture advances your understanding of the world. Immersing yourself in the ways of others helps to flesh out your character, giving you new insight into different world views and mentalities. Some are happy to spend their lives in an area 50 miles from where they were born. I have constantly chased the sunset, and language learning is a tool to facilitate that adventure.
It opens doors in life and work
On a personal level, I cannot visit another country without thinking at some point ‘I wish I knew the language’. You get a real sense that you are only experiencing the surface of a place, and that if you could only scratch that surface, there would be a world of wonder under there, just waiting to be seen. Imagine how much more you could gain from a trip to Paris if you could chat with an old artist in his mother tongue in some smokey cafe, or sit and play dominoes with some older ladies in Bangkok? These stories, these experiences, are the bread and butter of travel. A little language goes a long way in these moments, and they are the things that will linger long after the tan fades.
As for work, you make yourself infinitely more employable by being able to speak a second language well. We live in the global village, like it or not. A range of different industries now rely upon their ability to communicate worldwide, and to establish such links they require staff capable of bi-lingual expression. You can’t expect the world to learn English, after all. As an example, China is a vastly influential industrial nation whose current economic boom has meant the expansion of many companies to oversees trade. Though the English learning industry is currently exploding within its borders, there is still a dearth of people with an English level necessary for business correspondence. If you can appear to your boss and say ‘it’s cool, I got this’ and then rile off some supreme mandarin (tones and everything), you can go right ahead and upgrade your hero status from ‘Nigel’ to ‘Thor’ as you close the Wang account.
It increases creativity
Your first language, like the ability to walk and the ability to wash yourself, is a skill you learned at a young age. It is the fundamental way you express yourself, and many people live their whole lives utilising only that initial guise. But language, like any skill, has different forms. We can walk, but we can also run, jog, skip, pirouette, jive, samba, walk like an Egyptian, crawl, slither, wriggle…
Recent evidence has demonstrated a potential link between second language learning and divergent thinking. That is, how to think in alternative ways. This study focused specifically on the difference in foreign language learning from school learning, and how learning a foreign language as an adult often involves fluency, elaboration, originality and flexibility; all skills that can help you develop your inner Van Gogh/Picasso/Lady Gaga.
It unlocks new horizons
Though language, as stated previously, opens new horizons in the literal sense of enabling a fuller travelling experience, it can also open them in a figurative sense too.
For example, if you are a lover of classical fiction and are reading your way through the western canon, you can expect to encounter a range of writers from non-English speaking countries such as Dumas (French), Hesse (German) and Dostoyevsky (Russian). Perhaps you are more interested in Classic Chinese poetry and can’t decide who was greater, Li Bai or Du Fu? Their wonderfully romantic imagery tickles the imagination to this day (that is, if you love drinking and moon light).
If you are able to read in these native language, you can read the classic stories as they were written, not as they were translated. Authors choose their language carefully, and when this is translated, some of the meaning may be lost as some words don’t have direct translations in English. Most modern translations are fantastically well done, but that doesn’t mean the original doesn’t give something more.
What about world music? Or cinema? There is a profusion of different artistic areas in the world that you will never encounter if you can’t understand them. Learning a language is a key to the arts!
You can study or live abroad
This is my second time living away from my home country, and each adventure has brought with it a whole range of experiences (some expected, some not) that have shaped me and my mentality. I am thankful for these experiences, but there are always more to be had. With a couple more languages under my belt, I could fit seamlessly into tens of others countries and be amongst the people.
In Taiwan there is a great relationship between the universities there and some of the big ones abroad in countries such as America, Germany and the UK. Many students move both ways to study amongst a different culture, and this requires the learning of either traditional Mandarin or English. Even those whose language might not be perfect before they leave will see a huge improvement by the time they return, as to be amongst the language is the best way to learn.
For a work example, if your company has an office abroad and a promotion comes up in that city, they are probably going to be looking for people who will relish the challenge and won’t struggle to adapt. If you can demonstrate a competence in the native language of that place, surely that makes you a front runner?
You can improve your English
Ok, so this may seem a silly reason to learn a foreign language, but stick with me, Quillers. By looking at the grammar structures, how vocabulary is made and how we gain meaning from context, you are wiring your brain to analyse language in a critical way. This mindset will transfer naturally into your first language, as the human brain will always apply new knowledge against that which is known. You will find yourself trying the new rules out on your own language, and even if they aren’t compatible, you will be equipped to critically analyse your own language for it’s own rules. How many of you know the difference between the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous? It is rather a tenuous difference, I know. Hence why many of you probably aren’t familiar with the terms, even though your knowledge of the difference is there, buried in your unconscious mind.
It can save your life
Ok, so this definition needs to be stretched as far as is physically possible. I am not trying to say that one day you will be trapped in a house that is burning down when suddenly you use some Spanish to carefully negotiate with the fire and save your life. No, not at all, (though there is room for an argument that knowing another language could save your life in some situations, such as being held hostage…).
I want to focus here more on the argument that being bi-lingual could actually help to prevent the onset of brain degenerating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
There is a body of evidence to support the idea that learning a second language in early life could help thinking in old age, and by extension this could not only improve your standard of living as an elderly person, but also keep you safer and help you to avoid dangerous situations too. Another study suggests that quality of life is vastly extended, which would also imply a longer life as the longer you are living well, the less chance you have of dying young from health related issues.
Phew! That was a lot, right? I almost feel like I’ve done enough learning for one day!
Tell me though, who amongst you can speak a language other than English? Is English even your first language anyway? Do you agree with these points or are you thinking I missed something?
For the language learners amongst you, watch this space, as the IQ team will be posting a list of the best apps and programs for language learning, in the near future. Find it here.
Every day’s a school day!
Special thanks to arztsamui, Chiwat, graur razvan ionut, imagerymajestic, Naypong, samuiblue, stockimages and Witthaya Phonsawat @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.
© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015