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Why Every Reason Other People Have Ever Given You for Learning a Language is Wrong

We (English speakers especially) are often exhorted to learn “more”/”other”/”foreign” languages. (In truth, all languages are “foreign” to us, but that’s another story).

I’ve said it before, but I’ll said it again because it’s worth saying: this is bad advice.

Let’s unpack this.

It’s bad but it’s also good. It’s bad because the reasons given for why we should learn other languages — résumé-padding, (by extension) income, doing business, preventing cognitive decline (WTF?), showing off to strangers and acquaintances in public (stupid) — are more or less total B.S.

First of all, many native English speakers are still bad at English; arguably, they need to step up their game here in the rivers and the lakes that they’re used to first, before they go chasing waterfalls. I’m just sayin’…

More to the point, if you want to make money, learn how to make money. Learn about sales, marketing, business and finance. If you want to prevent cognitive decline, stop watching TV, take more walks, read and write more, become a producer of information rather than a mere consumer. If you want to floss, rent a car and some designer clothes and post your fake, blinged-up life on social media like all the hot chicks do. Don’t learn an extra language or (worse) multiple extra languages to do these things. That’s silly.

So why is a learning other languages good? Why is it worth it? In a word: options. Optionality. Knowing a language gives you options. The better you know it, the more options you have. Options to do what? Nobody knows. That’s the point. The point of learning a language isn’t the good you can see, it’s about the good you can’t see; it’s about the things that you would never even have known existed.

Words are magic. Language is magic. Language is literallysee what I did there? magic. It allows you to influence human beings to do what you want them to do for you. Whenever we speak, we are casting spells like Daniel Radcliffe. Nothing else packs so much power with so little effort. There are things words can do that not even guns and bombs can (words can create and defuse these things, but the opposite isn’t true). Words can get you a chai latte; the biggest bomb in the world cannot reliably do that. The pen and the tongue are literally more powerful than the sword.

Through words, you come into contact with people and ideas that would otherwise have escaped you. What people? What ideas? Nobody knows. I don’t know. You don’t know. And you only get to find out if you know enough language to, well, find out. That’s the trick. And don’t believe the hype — translation is of only limited good. Almost all the really good stuff remains untranslated, and this as true of Japanese as of English, two of the most translated languages in the world.

Seen in this light, economic arguments for language acquisition aren’t just mistaken, they’re deeply shallow; they completely miss the point — like using a real gun to play on your Nintendo Switch or using a working flagship smartphone as a door wedge. Saying “you should learn this language because you’ll make money, bro” is like saying: “you should eat at this restaurant because your poop will come out green like the Incredible Hulk”. Or: “you should walk through this stargate because the lights are really bright“. Or: “you should come swimming because the water is really salty”. There are quicker, easier and more efficient ways of getting salt and blinding lights into your eyes. Green poop is just a homemade spinach smoothie away. Or kale, if you like banging dudes 😛 …

…What?! Ain’t nothin’ wrong with banging dudes, bro! Like, I’d never do it, but if that’s what you like, then that’s what you like, man. Don’t be so judgmental and closed-minded! Drink your kale and get your, your…groove on. Sorry, I don’t know the words you people use 😉 . Santorum? That’s a thing, right?

Veiled passive-aggressive homophobia, check. Where were we again? Oh yeah, stargates have bright lights.

But that’s not the point of stargates. The point is not the lights. The point is that is that each language and the culture and people it is attached to is like its very own pocket universe. And you can only pass through the stargate and enter this universe with language knowledge. And just like clouds look like cotton wool unless and until you get all up in them, whatever perceptions people have from outside a given language are wrong. Ya gotta be all up in there.

Insurance is protection from unknown, unexpected, unforeseeable (i.e. open-ended) dangers.

Optionality is investment in unknown, unexpected, unforeseeable (i.e. open-ended) benefits.

If you knew what would happen or what you would get once you knew a language, it would:

  1. be boring, and
  2. make more sense to go after those thing(s) — those results — directly

If you could accurately foresee all the actual (not possible, but actual) damage and injury that a course of action would produce, the insurance would:

  • either be very expensive, or
  • nonexistent, or
  • unnecessary, because it’s very stupid to go into a situation where one knows for certain that one is going to get hurt, and it’s a waste of money to insure when one’s safety is guaranteed.

Optionality and insurance both exist because of the unknown, not the known. Learn a language not because of what you have to look forward to but because of what you don’t and can’t even know will happen. Not because of what you can predict but because of what no one could have ever accurately predicted in anything but the vaguest sense. A language is not a bullet point on a CV. It’s so much more and less than that. It’s not a skill. It’s nothing and everything. It is a universe full of awesome and (until you enter) unpredictable, unknowable ideas, experiences and people. Knowledge of the language is your self-reinforcing magic ticket to this universe: the more you explore, the more you get to know; the more you know, the more you can explore. And, yes, since universes are gimongous, there’s always bright lights and saltwater with your name on them lying around somewhere 😉 .

The foundation of all learning is imitation and memorization. And yet, learning isn’t simply about walking the same paths that others have beaten. Sure, there is some of that — maybe even lotspoiler alert: there’s a lot. 80% at least…maybe even 99%…but…those numbers, literal or figurative, are not what we’re about today. But, in part because human beings are incapable of making perfect copies, your imitation ends up carrying your own unique stamp and style (sort of related: Charlie Chaplin famously lost a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest, coming third).

Even Tenzing and Hilary, when summiting Mt. Everest for the first time, used paths, knowledge, techniques and equipment created, developed and discovered by their forebears, their professional ancestors. That doesn’t make them any less than the heroes and explorers they are…were….

What is the correct reason to learn language? To enter a new universe. Why? Because it’s there. 1

Notes:

  1. “the real reason to learn a language is because it’s there” [Language As An Investment | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time]

  1 comment for “Why Every Reason Other People Have Ever Given You for Learning a Language is Wrong

  1. Jorge
    September 18, 2019 at 04:23

    I kid you not, John McWhorter has learned over 10 languages because, and I quote, “it’s like why climb Mt. Everest? Because they are there.” Deja vu man. 🙂

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