Friday, September 24, 2010

why learn languages?

A while back, I received the following email from J.

Hi Keith,

I have a multilingual/polyglot question for you, one that's been on my mind lately. Perhaps you can lend me some insight.

We both share the same uncontrollable urge to learn languages, but the question is: Why? For what larger purpose? That's the existential question I'm struggling with. I'm curious to know, what are you going to do with the languages you learn?

Thanks for any insight you're able to offer.


I have some time now to answer J's question.

The reason I like to learn languages is because I find it fascinating to transform incomprehensible communication into something I understand. Or rather, I enjoy transforming myself into someone who can understand that language.

When you first listen to a language you don't understand, perhaps you're like me and think, how can anybody understand that? Is that really a language? It sounds so strange, so weird.

Once I learn just a few words, a phrase or two, or some tiny bit of the language, I am just amazed that I have this new found power. It's a super power! I have gained extra special abilities that no one in my family has. Most people out there can't understand a word of that language, but I can!

It's like being let into a secret society. Just repeat the secret phrase to the doorman and you're in! Once inside, everyone around you speaks in the secret language, known only to native-speakers.

Outside of the secret language society, life is pretty boring. Everybody speaks English and nobody is interested in learning a language.  You understand everything everyone says and there is no challenge.

I find I'm generally interested in learning the language of somebody I know. I won't be interested in learning Russian until I have an acquaintance from Russia.

I don't really have a larger purpose for learning languages. I do, however, see it as a useful skill that won't constantly need to be upgraded to the latest version. Once you learn to speak or understand a language, that skill doesn't become out-dated. It may even open some opportunities to you that you wouldn't have had available.

With the Japanese language, I am using it to live and work in Japan. Knowing the language of the country makes things possible. Not knowing it would make my opportunities much more limited.

For Chinese, I'll probably just use it to build friendships. There's no other reason to learn it except that it sounds like a cool language. It's a good feeling to know that I can now understand what I couldn't understand at all 2 years ago. There is some sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from that.

Learning languages has been one of the most exciting things I've ever done. It's also been very frustrating and tiring too, which is why I seek to do things the right and proper way. The natural way is undoubtedly that way.

I hope these words have offered some insights or at least have been interesting to read. Thanks!



  1. Thanks Keith, I wasn't expecting a whole blog post! I appreciate the thought you put into your answer. It certainly opens doors for both opportunities and new friends.

    Here's a follow-up question: What COULD be done with a skill in languages that is on a large scale? How can this be put into service for the greater good? I've been given some ideas, I'm curious what you (and other readers) might think of.

  2. In response to J's follow-up question:

    You've surely heard of the quote, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. "

    With skill in languages, you can certainly do things for other people. But I think the greatest good that you can do with it is to teach others how to learn languages.

  3. BRAVO!! Thank you for putting into words EXACTLY what I have been feeling and trying to explain to other people! It can be sometimes frustrating to explain why to "outsiders" because all they can think is, "Why would you wanna learn something like that?" or "What's the point of learning XYZ language, when you don't know anybody who speaks it around here?"

    Some people just don't get it or they never want to go out their own comfort zone to try it themselves but for some reason want to discourage YOU from doing it; which I don't get at all. The most encouraging part is that thousands of people are now starting to awaken to not just keeping English as their primary language in this country (U.S.) and I think its just beautiful and *about time!*

    I was surprised to find this "family" of people who communicate and are joined together for the love of learning languages and it became contagious! I have always wanted to learn more than one language but thought it was a dream. Then on a dare to myself, I started to learn and I realized that it WAS possible; I am not a dummy and could learn, too! lol! Although my "disease" caught on late in my life, I am still having the time of my life learning new languages, cultures and making new friends who have caught the same ailment! Thank you so much for that great post; an answer I have been trying to put into words from thought, for a long time and to the sender for asking the question that I think that a lot of us wondered about and thought that maybe we had some mental problems!

  4. Great post! The good thing that we are doing as voluntary multilinguals is to debunk myths surrounding adult language learning. You don't have to be talented, you just need to stay passionate. You don't always need to travel, the internet and blogs like Keith's show us that we are not alone in this quest. We just need to embrace this need and blog more. Thsnk you. xx Layinka


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