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If You’re Ever Stuck Between Two Languages, Pick the Less “Useful” One

“There is no such thing as discipline. There is only love. Love is the most powerful creative force in the universe. You are the result of what you love most.”
Charles Poliquin

“Do as little as possible
And that unwillingly
For it is better to incur a slight reprimand
Than to perform an arduous task.”
~ Michael Lewis, Family Motto

If you’re ever stuck between two languages, pick the less “useful” one: it’s the one you really want to learn.

Broadly speaking, the “usefulness” — utility? — of a language in the economic sense is actually, in my experience, a function of how good you — personally, individually — are at the language, not how many people speak it.

By any external measure, English is more “useful” than French or Dutch or even Japanese, but so…should, say, TORIYAMA Akira “improve his English” at the expense of his Japanese so he can sell more Dragon Ball books overseas? Should he trade in his auteur-level Japanese for broken English? Maybe he could get a little English-based side job, you know — something to fall back on? You see how the linear logic breaks down?

In fact, a lot of people, and let’s not name any names here, but a lot…of people…could stand to improve their native language shooting percentage 1 before going all foreign — and, if Johnson O’Connor is to be believed 2, would reap immense economic benefits from doing so. The cool thing about learning Japanese via Heisig is it basically gently forces that on us a bit; it requires us (to? 3) raise our game. I totally still collect new kanji (the Pokemon effect) and I definitely have the occasional kanji where I’m learning a new English word. I had a friend, a native English speaker…I guess I still have him; we’re still friends…( 😀 ) who was going through Heisig and didn’t know the word “consummate” (or that it has two significantly different, common meanings, one as a verb and the other as an adjective) and, yeah, needed to learn some new English. So, he get a twofer there.

Speaking of which — I might as well confess my own ignorance here if I’m going to be calling out friends — I still don’t know what the word “exfoliate” really, actually means. I hear chicks say it a lot; they seem to be into it.
OK, I’m done being cute and pretending to be humble and personable. Screw that; I’m the bestest in the world and my dad could beat up your dad…Back on topic!

The other issue is that you’re likely to need to go through a phase of being irrationally attached to a language, a “dip”, a phase where your commitment to the language no longer makes sense because you’re getting much less than you’re giving. You’re giving time, you’re giving energy, you’re giving money and you’re not seeing a return. If you like, think of it as mid-flight turbulence or that phase of a haircut where your head looks worse than when you entered the barbershop.

Note — and here’s where it gets interesting — that this “dip” will occur no matter how “useful” (economically valuable) the language is. You could be learning the Richbucks dialect of Usefulese itself, and there would still come a point (maybe even a period) where you would take a Limp Bizkit look around at the messy metaphorical kitchen that your personal life has become and wonder…why 4? I mean, think of it in blunt, physical terms — you could literally be digging a gold mine, Trebek, and you basically know there’s gold down there, but you’re like: “all I’m doing is moving soil; fornicate this feces; I’m tired of being dirty and covered in mud; I’m going home”.

And you’ll have every reason to want to go home, because for one thing, you’re probably not going to be popular among men or women, because most people, ourselves included, love the results of practice but not the process. Everybody loves a big shot, nobody loves a prospector with that visionary 5 glint in his eye. Everybody loves Mark Zuckerberg now, nobody loved him in 2001. And the only language that’s likely to carry you through this phase is a language you love irrationally, because it alone has the potential to lead you to fall in love with practicing it, kind of like how a girl you like can have you getting into stuff you weren’t even into.

Now, once you pass through this phase, this Godinian Dip, things make sense again.

So, as I see it, becoming so good at Ancient Egyptian that you could do a Daniel Jackson (Stargate) and roll your eyes at mainstream textbooks 6 is far more powerful, economically speaking, than broken Spanish or Arabic or Mandarin or any of the big popular langs. It’s the whole sharp knife/blunt knife thing… 7


  1. Sports metaphors make me seem manly!
  2. presuming you’re willing to start believing Irishmen because your doctor just wrote you a new prescription for crazy pills BOOM! Bring it! Where’s Benny? Call Benny! Tell him I’m victimizing the Irish people again. What’s he gonna do? Huh? Steal back the marshmallow cereal I stole from him? Or write me a stern letter of disapproval? Maybe guest post one of his new special projects here? Oh no, I’m shaking so much I’m gonna spill this fake mug of Guinness.
  3. No speaka English — echoing grammar Nazi talking points has made me extra self-conscious 😛 . There’s a Krashen hypothesis for this…
  4. Many of my Japanese friends who wanted to learn English reached this point pretty durn quick, and said “screw it; I don’t even like English that much”. Which works out just fine for me 😀
  5. A visionary is just madman who proved his point.
  6. Well, the translation of the inner track is wrong. Must’ve used Budge. I don’t know why they keep reprinting his books.
  7. Not to mention the big fish/little pond thing. If you’re prone to thinking of the world in terms of ponds and fish, that is. Knowing a big language would be nice, knowing a smaller or more captive language will make you an absolute superstar. Maybe even a national hero. Iceland never forgot the favor Bobby Fischer did the country by merely playing a chess game there, and even after he said a bunch of mean things that made it awkward to be associated with him, Iceland still went out of its way to help him.

    So, if you’ve got attention whorish tendencies (I certainly do), then, all other things being equal, if the love is there, you will be best served by running far, far away from anything that even looks like a heritage language on you. Assuming the love is there, go for a language that’s, for want of a better word, physically “incongruous”, that (as much as I hate this attitude) you don’t “look” like you “should” be able to speak. Gosh, I hate that attitude. But it serves you very, very well. Heritage languages and pseudo-heritage languages are a thankless job. Seemingly “exotic” languages (no such thing, really…we’re all on the same little planet) are, yeah…a gold mine.

    But again, before you run away and learn Dzongkha just because it’s “rare”, let me re-iterate that the love has to be there and has to keep being there. Surely you are already co-erced and blackmailed into doing enough things in your life; surely you do enough things out of a sense of duty, why add one more? Why add another obligation? No, screw it, man. Don’t do it. It doesn’t matter that much. Not for money. There are far easier ways to get rich.

    And you should be proud of your choice to learn or not learn a language. Be proud. Be okay with choosing to do or not do it. Know what every author who doesn’t write bestsellers knows (hehe, I’m being mean): that you could if you wanted to — you could — you just don’t want to. And that’s fine. Seriously. Don’t come up with some slave mindset explanation about how you “can’t” or “they” won’t let you.

    I once literally read a blog where the author, an expat in Hong Kong, with a straight face, argued that a landowning, Cantonese-English bilingual “elite” in Hong Kong were actively preventing the rest of the population from becoming bilingual in order to maintain their monopoly on power. ARE YOU FAR KING KIDDING ME?! Yes, of course, because this is 12th century Europe and the peasants need to be kept dumb and docile. You know those crafty Cantonese — always preventing you buying Chinese comic books and DVDs, forcing you to keep the TV off Chinese channels, keeping the hanzi a secret from you! There are not enough Kit-Kat bars in the Universe to give me a break from this.

    Don’t be that guy. I think we’ve made it a bad thing to refuse to do anything that’s “good for you” and learning languages has become this thing that’s universally proclaimed to be…almost morally right. We need to reclaim our veto power and exercise it without shame, without justification, without excuses. It’s okay to not want to do stuff and act on that non-desire. I do it all the time. I have friends that try to get me to be their personal interpreter. I won’t do it. Not because I can’t or couldn’t or my cousin’s iguana’s birthday is coming up, but because I choose not to spend my time in that way. End of.

    You could learn any language you want to “native level”. You are physically capable of it. Doesn’t mean you have to. Doesn’t mean you “should”. It just means you can, you could, if you wanted to.

    Possession of an ability doesn’t obligate its use. It seems to me that we’ve gotten into the habit of handicapping ourselves to make ourselves seem nice, to make ourselves popular. It probably started as a joke, after all, it’s impolitic to see a successful, let’s say author, and go “I could do that”. And it is impolitic, but it’s also true (it’s also impolitic to say that bad-tasting food tastes bad, and I think this is a good rule; people who make fun of the food at my house get kicked out 😛 — decorum is a good thing). The thing is, we’ve started to believe our own spin; we’ve swallowed our own humility at face value.

    So now, the guy who says “no” because he “has” to go somewhere else: he’s a good guy. But the guy he says “no” because he chooses to go somewhere else: he’s a jerk. The incompetent pushover with no options is a good person, but the person in control of his life is somehow “evil”. I’m sure Nietzsche would have plenty say about this.

    And so perhaps we start unconsciously but inexorably and constantly forcing ourselves into crappy, no-option situations in order to seem good and even to feel good. Which is another way of saying, Jiminy Cricket was wrong: don’t let your conscience be your guide; your conscience has been had; your conscience is faulty; your conscience has become nothing but a travel agency selling guilt trips. See? This is what happens when you take life advice from Disney characters.

    You “should”, what a load of bull. No doubt you “should” save babies from falling out of windows, but I don’t see you trying to make a lifestyle or career out of that. Why aren’t you patrolling the streets, checking the windows for babies, huh? Don’t you care about babies?! Are you some sort of baby-killer?! Every time a baby near where you live falls out a window while you were being a little git fiddling with your smartphone, that death is on you; you could have prevented it but you chose to update your Facebook status instead. What’s that? I can’t hear you above the sound of how morally reprehensible your callousness towards human life is…you just killed that baby, you little Facebooking-while-babies-die git.

    And every language you didn’t learn when you could have but you didn’t, you selfish, self-centered, ethnocentric, xenophobic, narcissistic bastard who only thinks about himself and in the languages he knows already!

  11 comments for “If You’re Ever Stuck Between Two Languages, Pick the Less “Useful” One

  1. September 22, 2013 at 09:11

    面白い。 I think I remember Chad Fowler makes a similar argument in The Passionate Programmer–in his example a programmer who loves/is obsessed with Smalltalk sets herself apart from the bunch of people with just Java, Java, and more Java on their resumes.

  2. Thomas Smith
    September 22, 2013 at 14:02

    Any advice for a fool who’s backed himself into a corner?

    ==WARNING: If you don’t want to read about my First-World Problems, look away now

    I started French for pure fun, enjoying French indie cinema, French politics, French pop, awesome BD’s, and soaking up Hugo In The Original French (no ponciness here, it was a guilty pleasure), and French ladies. I still enjoyed US and UK shows, and didn’t want to give them up, but so much was dubbed, so I enjoyed those too, as a Frenchman would. Love of culture first, fluency as a consequence. Job done.

    I started Mandarin for pure fun, the sounds pleased me, the characters were beautiful, and as that initial coolness wore off I wrongly assumed there would be a culture of similar interest to me. But I was wrong. There are a few gems, but mostly there is very little I enjoy. (Zero disrespect to Chinese/Taiwanese culture as such, it’s just not for me. Peace and love!) There is (almost) nothing I enjoy in films and pop culture. The weibo world just makes me sad. And it is definitely NOT for lack of looking. The stuff simply isn’t there. And as for Western media, next-to-nothing is dubbed.

    Literally the only thing keeping me interested is getting to a level to read the old school books.

    To make matters worse, I’m stuck in Taiwan for a year. Wonderful people, but nothing beyond that.

    Meanwhile, I have been drawn into Japanese stuff. Loads and loads and loads of it. I listen and watch all the time, when I “should” be listening to Mando. I can’t understand a word, but I don’t care. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s well-produced, it’s even funny. It’s LOVEable. I listen and watch while I do my Mando MCDs.

    My dilemma – I don’t want to stop, because I feel like I’ve committed too much, because not getting to fluency would feel like a failure, because I don’t want to have “wasted” my time, because I don’t want to be in a laowai bubble in Taiwan and, more positively, because I will maintain a mild, half-arsed interest for the rest of my life, especially in old literature.

    On the other hand – Anki and listening to schyte for hours a day for another 365 days is a bleak prospect.

    So do I crack on for one more year, until I can put it to bed as a job well done, if not particularly enjoyed, and enjoy the marginal interest and growth after the Final Sh## Year? And then dive into the AJATT 5-10 year dream of becoming a third Japanese (I’m already half French :D)? A Japano-Franco-Anglophile, with a mild like of Mandarin.

    Or do I do AJATT in Taiwan, starting this week? A Japano-Franco-Anglophile, who once f###ed up and “wasted” two years studying a language, and a third living in a country in isolation.

    I know Khatz made a similar decision with Canto vs Mando, but he eventually did both, he was just choosing which one *first*. My choice is *whether* “mild interest” is enough to justify.

    I would genuinely love to hear your advices, *especially* if you’ve faced a similar problem yourself.

    And would it be sane or insane to attempt Mando intermediate and Japanese beginner simultaneously? (Bear in mind French advanced ticks away in the background.) The internet seems to be awash with people who’ve been chasing two rabbits for ages, and still have yet to catch either.

    Again I would genuinely love to hear your advices.

    And apologies for putting a big downer in people’s happy place!


    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      September 23, 2013 at 01:06

      All the time you’ve spent on Mandarin is sunk costs. You’re not getting it back. You need to focus on something that gives back to you.

      Since you’re in Taiwan, where there a lot of people who LOVE Japanese stuff, you should be able to find originally Japanese materials in Mandarin, if you want to read and listen to that. Nobody said you couldn’t do that, and it’s not any less authentic Mandarin.

      Otherwise, don’t waste your time. No, seriously, don’t waste your time. If you’re going to leave the country anyway, go ahead and live in your “laowai bubble”.

    • Pingfa
      September 24, 2013 at 10:53

      I can emphasise with this. I had this issue with Mandarin too. You are right that it is lacking in quality media compared to many places in the west and developed developed asian countries like Japan. There are some good ones to be found, though, I could recommend some.
      Hong Kong also has a very developed movie industry and a number of shows with Mandarin dubs.
      There are plenty of western movies dubbed in Mandarin but chances are you won’t be able to find a lot of them through official sources. QVOD is the easiest way to find Mandarin dubs, you should be able to find Mandarin dubs of most popular animations with QVOD (the downside is you can’t be sure what you are downloading is very safe; my scanner has found issues with QVOD downloads before, though nothing particularly harmful).

      Now if you really want to watch Japanese media, lucky for you Taiwanese are Japanophiles. You should be able to find Mandarin dubs of most popular Japanese anime and translations of popular manga. I could recommend some.

      So, there may be hope yet. Nonetheless, if the language is really getting you down, don’t bother. You don’t need it. You don’t decrease in value for not learning another language.

  3. Pingfa
    September 24, 2013 at 10:30

    “Why aren’t you patrolling the streets, checking the windows for babies, huh? Don’t you care about babies?!”

    Hah, this reminds me of the many morons on Youtube spouting jibba jabba like ‘there are people dying in Iraq right now and you are watching videos on Youtube!’
    There are starving kids in Africa and you are writing articles!
    There was an earthquake in Taiwan and you are watching TV!
    Global warming is killing the earth and I’m typing this nonsense!

    The one thing we have that is ours alone is choice. When you limit yourself to what is conventionally acceptable you might as well give away your soul while you’re at it because you won’t be using it, if you let the rest of the world dictate what you do with it.

    We will never get around to doing all the things we ‘should’ do, it’s not possible. You won’t read 1/1000000000000000000+ of the books you ‘should’ read in your lifetime. You can, however, read whatever you want right now.

  4. chrissy
    June 2, 2014 at 18:45

    Do you think someone can become proficient in two languages at the same time, or people should just stick to one language first?

  5. Ion
    September 27, 2014 at 10:38

    I’m Romanian. Fluent in English, Spanish. Pretty good in French and Portuguese – I would say B2.1 or B2.2 level. I’m looking to learn a Asian language – Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese and Russian. I think it’s doable learning two languages at the same time, but my experience shows that you have to focus 1 or 2 weeks on one language, let the new info settle and switch to the other one in the meantime. The languages need not to be similar – I had some problems learning Spanish and Portuguese at the same time and confusing words and pronuncition. The problem with Chinese, as Thomas put it, is that they don’t have enough new cultural quality products to attract you. It is still a controlled country and culture is still not at the same level as their industry. Let’s wait another 10-15 years and see what happens. Go to wikipedia home page. Look how many entries are for Chinese and how many for Japanese. Russia and even Poland have more entries. Something is wrong there.

  6. Maz
    January 6, 2015 at 07:04

    This is fabulous, and so true its obvious! We’re in a society where everything we do has to be justified with what career we’ll be able to make out of it. Pressure comes from so many sides…its nice to have a refreshing take on this issue 🙂 I’ve been having this internal argument with myself for a long while.

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