Why learn so many languages?

One of the commenters on a recent post posed an interesting question:

what is the point of learning so many languages if one is never going to be able to speak them well or use them all? Are they sea shells which we collect to look at or tools that we use?

This made me think about my motives for learning languages, something I do from time to time when trying to decide whether to continue to working on the languages I’ve already ‘collected’, or to go out and collect some new ones.

I learn languages for a variety of reasons – in preparation for holidays in countries where they’re spoken; because they’ll be useful in my work; because I like some aspect of the culture (usually the music); and/or simply because I like the sound of them. I also enjoy the process of learning languages and seem to have some aptitude for it. I realise that I probably won’t become fluent in all the languages I’m studying, and this doesn’t worry me unduly. I’ve been able to make use of all my languages in a range of situations, though opportunities to use some of them are quite rare.

Are you collecting sea shells or forging tools for practical use? Or a bit of both?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

17 Responses to Why learn so many languages?

  1. Joanna says:

    Another reason I have for learning languages (even if I won’t be able to become fluent in them) is for gaining perspective… Language is such a big part of people’s culture and life and common sense, that learning languages is a way of understanding how the world works from all different human beings’ perspectives. I think language learning leads to greater peace, understanding, and collaboration!

  2. Polly says:

    I agree 100%.
    I don’t want to get all We-are-the-world here, but I think language learning bridges the gap between distant cultures. When someone speaks your language, suddenly, they don’t seem as different or unapproachable. Barry Farber’s exerience speaks to that (How to Learn Any Language).

    Here’s a little thought experiment: imagine you’re in a jungle and are confronted by tribal people bearing stone-age weapons. You’re filled with apprehension. Now imagine if one of them greets you with a flat, but clear, “Hello, how do you do.” It’s a very different feel to the situation. (Of course, you might still get run-through depending on the temperment of your erstwhile hosts.)

    Hopefully that wasn’t TOO culturally insensitive an illustration.

  3. Questioneer??? says:

    Wow! Those are some interesting thoughts. I have an aptitude for learning languages and I love them. I would desire greatly to hug them. To me they are seashells and I am aiming to collect the prettiest, oddest, nost peculiar and the most practical. I also like to see the world from different perspectives. For example I read a French newspaper that provides an entirely different world perspective than an American paper.

    By the way my favorite seashell is the whelk.

  4. James says:

    “I read a French newspaper that provides an entirely different world perspective than an American paper”

    that´s politics and culture, not because the subjunctive is used more in French than English. Beware of collapsing grammar and the worldview of the people who use it 🙂

    I used to be a shell collector, now i have become someone who would rather have one tool and be able to use it well. I can understand why having some use of many languages would be useful in some areas (for example in early church history you would ideally want to be able to read Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, German and English because of the sources and secondary literature).

    You go through so many stages of fluency it´s truely bewildering


  5. James says:

    and your speling and English goes very strange. I spoke to a friend on the fone the other day and said

    “there is a manifestation in the street outside my department”

    which of course is “hay una manifestación en la calle donde mi departamento”

    he told me I was speaking gibberish,



  6. GeoffB says:

    One value to being a collector is that the more languages you’ve studied, the easier it is to find meaning and understanding with new languages. When I started Korean, it was an impossible mess of sounds. This weekend I was glancing at a manual for Azerbaijani and thinking how it sounded like someone who knew Uzbek and Turkish but couldn’t decide which to speak. The next time I picked up a Korean book and saw the postpositions, verbs at the end of the sentence, etc, suddenly I knew why people think it might be distantly related to the Turkic languages – it all started seeming familiar. I don’t know any Turkish speaker, but I know lots of Koreans who are learning English. If the connection to Turkish is what it takes to build my learning so I can help them feel more at home, that makes it worth approaching Korean the “easy way” via the Turkic languages.

    I started as a collector, and think it’s invaluable for building that connection with people who are far from home and really need to know that someone has at least a faint idea where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to say. However, I know the frustration of wanting to say more and not being able to. I’ve compromised, studying some languages seriously and amusing myself with others, especially when I need a break from the main language I’m focused on.

    A second value, as a collector, is that one gets a better idea what languages are out there, what they’re like, and which ones one most wants to study. When I was teaching French in the Midwest, working on Italian and German made a lot of sense because they’d give me access to literature scholarship, etc. In California, building my extremely weak Mandarin and rebuilding my Spanish makes a lot more sense. Were I a truly serious learner, I would have buckled down and learned German well just in time for it to become much less important in my life. As a collector, I can always resume work on the languages that will serve me best where I am both geographically and in life.

    Why so many languages? I don’t understand the question. Even if you’ve studied 20, you’re missing out on hundreds! So I think it’s best to realize that if you’re open to lots of languages, your life’s course and your level of interest will take you exactly as far as you’re meant to with each of them. Collect the baubles and enjoy them; in time you’ll discover which ones are precious gems for you.

  7. rek says:

    This past February I moved from Toronto to Seoul with the objective of learning Korean. I’m not Korean, but I also lived here for three years when I was younger. At the time I didn’t pick up the language beyond a handful of pleasantries and the expected insults, and for a decade following I regretted that.

    I like the sound of the language and I really appreciate the writing system. I’m also learning Korean because I have this inexplicable connection or affinity for the country, its people, and the language. Moving to Korea the first time was just another aspect of it; everytime I turn around there has been something Korea-related in the corner of my eye for as long as I can remember.

    In three months of lessons at Sogang University I feel I’ve already learned more Korean than I did French in the years and years (and years) I took it at school in Canada. There are aspects of the language that continue to throw me for a loop no matter how much I try anticipating them (such as the aforementioned postpositions, but also the reverse ordering of verbs*) but I am far more capable of carrying on a basic conversation in Korean than I ever was with French.

    I don’t know if I can decide whether Korean is a sea shell or a hammer; possibly it’s a bit of both to me. My stay here likely ends after Level 2 in August, but I will continue learning on my own if need be, and someday I may find a use for it beyond ordering dinner in Koreatown.

    (*By which I mean “will be able to do” becomes “to do be able will”)

    p.s. Love this site; I visit it nearly every day.

  8. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Usually, I go with the seashell theory, except in German, where I make a tool of it.

  9. SamD says:

    One of the advantages of learning many languages is that you become more conscious of your own language. I learned more about English grammar studying foreign languages than I did in any English class.

    Learning languages also opens me up to reading things that aren’t available in my native language and to meeting people who don’t speak English well. I’ve always been the sort of person who is curious about the wider world.

    When you live in Ohio, USA, Portuguese and Norwegian are more like seashells than hammers. However, the world needs seashells. Learning Portuguese and Norwegian also increases the possibility that I might end up in situations where those languages become hammers.

  10. Polly says:

    I learned more about English grammar studying foreign languages than I did in any English class.

    I’ve said this same thing many times. If it weren’t for my study of foreign language, I would never have received any grammatical training. My high-school was rather shabby in the English department (also: Math, Science, Spanish, P.E…), with the exception of one teacher.
    I learned the parts of speech from having to observe their functions in other languages.

  11. I am interested in languages more as mental exercises and tools than simply for their own sake. I do have a real language nerd in me, but I do best when I see a reason for what I’m doing. Spanish is extremely useful in the U.S., and it’s my main language. Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew I am learning because I feel it will help my understanding of the Bible–since I have the language talent, I felt it was almost a “duty” to turn it towards the Biblical languages. German I learned mainly because of ancestry, and it will be the same way for Dutch whenever I start that.

    For other languages, I look at the structure for fun…but for actual serious learning, I can’t seem to motivate myself unless I find a use of some sort.

  12. Æren says:

    I started learning langs as a means of my open war against boredom; I also wanted to acquire more determination and constancy for myself, and also as a way for learning to finish what I have begun. Who knew that I would become so interested in linguistics…

  13. James K says:

    There are so many overlapping reasons for my interest in studying languages that it is quite difficult to disentangle them. From early on, growing up in the overwhelming monoglot Midwest, I was curious about the world beyond — and language seemed the major key to better understanding the culture and history of other another place. I ultimately became a historian, which required that acquire a number of languages as “tools” — but deep down I was drawn to my specialty (the Middle East) because I was interested in the languages of the region. I acquired, to various degrees, Arabic, Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and European research languages like Russian, German, and French. They were all useful, at least from the perspective of a grad student. But I enjoyed them. And now that I am a secondary school teacher, not having to delve into archives, I “collect” other languages that picque my interest — sometimes because I love their script (Sinhala, Hindi, etc.) or that might aid in my travels (Danish and Icelandic for an upcoming trip) or simply because (Faroese, Akkadian). I make no apologies for being a “collector”…but learning a language, extinct or modern, widely spoken or rare, is never without value.

  14. Aeneas says:

    I like language, plain and simple. I also like studying various scripts. Heck, I learned the cyrillic alphabet just for the hell of it, even though I can’t speak any language that uses it! I guess it’s also part of my pesonality, I’m very curious by nature.

    Ultimately, having studied history, I think studying the evolution of a language and its script can give good insights into the culture of a given people.

  15. James says:

    “Why so many languages? I don’t understand the question. Even if you’ve studied 20, you’re missing out on hundreds!”

    OK, but you all seem to assume that the more different languages you acquire (whatever that means in this case) the better. If you go for depth rather than width you have a totally different experience: being able to appreciate the difference between LA and Peninsular Spanish more fully rather than just noting the superficial differences, enjoying the nuances differences between regions etc. French and German remain useful research languages (a friend has just asked me to read a class he has written in French to check the comment), and I still half fancy learning Portuguese, but i think from now on 90% of my energy will be going into Spanish, and I am not at all sorry that that means I won´t ever learn how to speak Dutch, Arabic or modern Hebrew, all of which i think are deeply beautiful.


  16. Polly says:

    If you go for depth rather than width you have a totally different experience:

    Yup, and totally rewarding experience, too. But, why should these be mutually exclusive? It takes relatively little time to gain a superficial acquaintance with even half-a-dozen languages, if you’re not going for fluency. And the return on (a little) investment can be gratifying. Meanwhile, it doesn’t have to detract from pursuing 1 or 2 languages in depth. (For me that would be Russian and Armenian). As you are devoting 90% attention to Spanish, that still leaves 10% for other pursuits.

    Besides, by that reasoning, even one’s native language could occupy them for the rest of their lives (and that would be worthwhile, too): all the dialects of English, the historical changes, vowel shortening, pre-/post- Norman conquest, etc. One doesn’t even have to venture beyond English to find linguistic fulfillment. So, depth of study is also arbitrarily demarcated.

    Any sociological study can be broken down broadly into comparative vs. focused (Religion for example) or varying degrees of compromise between those two perspectives. Many here, just emphasize the former.

  17. Nora says:

    That is what I’ve learnt during my language-studies. I become a different person when I speak English, Spanish or French, or my native language, Hungarian.

    Nice thoughts, keep on learning languages!

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