This is the second post in a multi-part series on Language and Society. Here is the first post.
Long ago, Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion… But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, ‘I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.’ If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases. [Emphasis added]
Warren of Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway 2005 Chairman’s Letter
OK, I’m again going beyond the depth of my experience here, but…what the heck. In for a 錢 in for a 圓…
Um…so, as we talked about in the previous post, a lot of people seem to want to learn languages for economic reasons.
And this makes perfect sense. There’s a strong correlation between language knowledge and economic power. Think: Johnson O’Connor’s research minus the “aptitude-testing” silliness.
The problem is that these same people go about their language “investment” activities in completely the wrong way. They’re the kind of people who were frantically learning Japanese in the 1980s, Pashto and Dari immediately after those rather inconveniently scheduled building demolitions in the fall of 2001, Arabic in 2002~2005, and Mandarin today. Scurrying like lemmings over whatever new cliff is presented them, never mind the fact that they weren’t done falling over the previous cliffs.
These are the same people who buy stocks when everyone else is buying them, and sell them when everyone else is selling them. Buy high, sell low. And whenever this plan fails, as it so often does, it becomes a perfect time to blame George Soros/the Jews/the Chinese/the Japanese/the Mexicans. It’s times like this that make things hard for people like George Soros’ close friend, Rabbi Alberto Matsuyama-Wang.
That joke failed. Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is this:
Learning a language is a good investment. But not in the way that most people think. And certainly not on the timescales most people are thinking on.
To put it simply, learning a language is an investment requiring so much personal attention (you have to be there the whole time), money (your brain needs books and videos to feed on), and time (despite Pimsleur’s promises, with our current knowledge and technology, the process takes longer than ten days), that it is best looked upon not as an investment, nor even a clear-cut intellectual endeavour, but as a lifestyle. A way of living. Because:
1. If we don’t know the current “hot language” already, right when it is hot, then in order to meaningfully take advantage of its hotness – which will eventually cool down, as these things do – we are going to need the ability to travel back in time. Because, starting now, by the time we get to a good level, we’ll be just in time to miss the party.
2. If fast money is the objective, then there are faster, easier, more straightforward ways of doing it than by acquiring a language. Every time we try to get people worked up into some throbbing sense of obligation to learn more languages, based on vague notions of “increasing globalization”, we are doing them a disservice.
As I’ve said before, the real reason to learn a language is because it’s there. This is how native speakers learn their language. And, ultimately, in most cases, it is native/native-level speakers that count the most as communication partners. There are exceptions to this, but none of them as useful or meaningful as we want. If one wants to get out of the “good enough for a gaijin” ghetto, then one needs to take on the native speaker’s level of commitment: all Japanese/whatever language, all the time, because this is simply who I am; it is a part of my personal identity.
Learning a language pays. But not so much in the myopic, injecting-cows-with-steroids (“they’re ready for slaughter in two weeks!”), resume-padding fashion that is, well, fashionable right now.
Knowledge of a language provides the fundamental tools and infrastructure for an endless variety of relationships, activities and interactions. Knowing the language of a country to a high level is akin to being able to breathe its air without a respirator; it’s that fundamental.
But this knowledge comes at a price (time, attention, cash), and it is a price so obvious and so high that most people cannot pay it. I know I can’t. Thus, we must figure out a way to make the language pay us. In principle, the only thing that can make a language worth learning is joy in the process itself. Unless one has incredible coercive powers over oneself (again, I certainly don’t), one is only going to go through with the language if one gets lost in the language.
Just as acting native-like is both the cause and effect of…becoming native-like, so learning a language must become an end in itself. The actual state of being in the process of acquiring a language must be its own reward. The reward must be the road itself.
So have fun, and know that it – this learning-a-language-to-pwnage-level-thing – does pay, literally. In ways that you can barely even imagine right now, it pays. But keep your head cool and level, because the world can seem to be full of hot-headed, day-trader-type language learners eager to tell you what you “should” be learning (“Japanese? That’s SO 20 years ago!”), eager to get you on their little dot lang bandwagon, so we can all head for the cliffs together.
Play for the long haul. I know that sounds negative (“hauling” things for a “long” time…there’s nothing nice-sounding about that 🙂 ). But, when you think about it, this is great news. Knowledge of Japanese/whatever language, is an investment so powerful, so valuable, that if you keep it in your portfolio (i.e. keep pwning at it), it will still be paying you back 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years from now. Indeed, for the rest of your life. This is wonderful, wonderful news. It means you don’t have to flit about like a Ritalin-deprived butterfly every time a new fad comes in. It’s carte blanche to enjoy yourself right where you are right now, because the sky is not falling down, the bottom is not falling out, and no one but you is deciding on bedtime.
Just enjoy yourself. You have to; yes “have” to – this is your one and only “obligation” – to have a laugh and then have another and another. Play. It’s the only thing that will get you “through” this. Plus it’s tons of fun. So. Much. Fun. 😉
The end. For now. Stay tuned for part three, coming two days from now.
P.S. Short-term, low-end, quick-and-dirty, let’s-learn-some-phrases-to-help-us-on-our-journey style learning has its place and has value. It’s just not what we’re talking about today.
P.P.S. You AJATTeers are the very best-looking, smartest commenters in the world. You always bring up insightful points that I never even considered. So, as always, I look forward to hearing from you!
P.P.P.S.: “Which Language Should You Learn to Break Into Investment Banking?: Learn English or improve your English skills – even if you’re a native speaker.” [Languages in Investment Banking] is.gd/6OAWQC