Why Learn Another Language?

I had been living in Spain for a few months, making lots of friends, trying hard to learn the new language, and having great fun doing it. I felt like Marco Polo.

Living in a foreign country when you are young and the world is new anyway is one of the most exciting and instructive things you will ever do. Everything is upside-down: everything you see, everything you hear, most of what you do—it’s all wonderfully strange and corny, like Alice’s Wonderland. You come every day like a guest to the Tea Party and chat with the March Hare, the Rabbit, and the Caterpillar. Maybe all day there’s a frown on your face—the frown caused by the puzzle around you, by the inconvenience, the little suffering that learning requires; but at night when you lie down, you smile. There are so many funny stories to tell your friends. Maybe you shine in those tales and you tell the kids the whole world is nutty; that the people are all unpractical or unreasonable or unwise; and that you are the hero, the only sane man. But deep-down you suspect, if you don’t already know, that the lesson to the story is your own ignorance.

By and by I met a U.S. Air Force colonel who had been stationed in Spain for years. His beautiful daughter spoke Spanish better than any American I’d ever met, so I was surprised to learn that he spoke none—not a word. “He understands quite a bit by now,” said his daughter, a little embarrassed about him. “He just never learned to speak. Doesn’t want to.”
“But why not?” I asked.
“He says he just doesn’t see the point of wasting his time studying, only to be able to say the same things in another language.”

I nodded with respect at this reasoning, trying to keep myself, out of caution, out of piety, from condemning it as plain-spoken ignorance. The man, after all, was an officer in the United States Air Force and I was a kid. Every day I had to watch my mouth and suppress this or that reflection, hold my horses, grin when I would have frowned, and so on. Often I wanted to call back home and tell them the world was not what they thought it was.

The Colonel’s bit of wisdom/ignorance lay around in my mind for years and one day I suddenly knew why he was wrong. You don’t learn a language to SAY things so much as to LISTEN to them.

You learn not so much to ACT as to OBSERVE, to WITNESS.


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10 Responses to Why Learn Another Language?

  1. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: Nope. She missed her chance.

  2. wpm1955 says:

    What I would like to know is if the colonel’s beautiful daughter became your wife?

    Madame Monet

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I guess this is a subject that can be discussed for days.
    By being able to manage I meant being able to have very simple everyday conversations. Gifted are people who can speak 5-6 languages fluently.

    I think being able to learn a foreign language well is an inborn ability. It’s interesting what you say about superficial people, never thought of that. But it makes sense, they’re talkers, they need to pick words up fast to thrive on what they do best. :)

    Without proper study one’s language skills become very gappy. I find myself using words the average native doesn’t know, and then other times not being able to use basic but specialised terms, say medical terms at the doctor’s office, where you need to be specific about your problem. Well, maybe my visits weren’t too frequent either to improve in that area. I can live with that, but you’re right Swallows about you might appear simpler, lesser at first sight because of language limitations. Hopefully that picture changes once people get to know you better.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Christopher: Kids have all the advantages, don’t they? Their ideas and speech habits haven’t hardened yet and meeting new people is easy. Also they believe anything is possible in the future and why not learn another language or go here or follow this lead?
    The spark in older folks? I have found that in general–always in general, there are many exceptions–people don’t learn languages well after about 25 or 26, especially men. Maybe they don’t learn anything well anymore, for that matter. Women learn better. Men tend to see language as only a silly instrument and they use it without enough respect. They will grab a screw driver to pound in a nail. They hate to be bothered with the details of language–precisely what you MUST be bothered with to speak it well.

    The best language learners are often superficial people. They mimic like parrots. Many intelligent people with strong personalities just can’t learn another language–that would be like surrendering part of themselves. Fear–Andreas’ fear? I guess. There’s also something about the need for a language learner to be willing to be molded, to follow the new lead. Old people are no longer willing (able?).

  5. 100swallows says:

    Erika: You must be very gifted to have learned so well, so fast, and in that way. I watched TV (though not regularly) in German and didn’t understand much after almost two years.
    Of course I was 21 or 22–age makes a difference. (Yet wasn’t Joseph Conrad twenty when he started to learn English, with Shakespeare’s plays and working on a ship?) I can understand how frustrating it must be not to be able to express yourself as you would like to. I have learned Spanish well and I love it and can write well enough to publish but it will always be imitative. I don’t have a reference deep down inside me as I do in English.
    Of course that’s another subject–how one changes along with the new language. You know you are not the same person to the Canadians as you are to the people you knew back home. You have had to come up with a new person or personality, a simpler, a lesser one, because of your limitations. This is some of that humiliation Andreas talked about. It is tough not to be able to control better the impression you make on others.

  6. erikatakacs says:

    I was that eager girl when I came to Canada. I already knew to latin languages which helped me tremendously. I think I was able to manage in two months without schooling, just by watching lots of tv (those commercials were the best teacher!).

    I feel the humiliation more now, when I can’t express myself as eloquently as I would like. Blogging helps, I use the dictionary frequently thanks to those 100swallows posts. :) Luckily even the dictionary is just a click away. I will never conquer the English language, and the worst part is I’m starting to forget rarely used words of my native language too! Never expected that!

    I remember when I first came to Canada, I was sitting next to two guys on the plane. They spoke some weird language, I couldn’t quite figure out what. So the trip was pretty boring. We were getting very close, when I finally caught a word or two, it sounded French. I asked them if they were French, they said “oui, oui” with big happy smiles. It turned out they were Québecois from Montreal. From then on I was able to chat with them, just before arriving to the airport.

  7. christopher says:

    Great observations, swallows. I did an enormous amount of traveling as a young man and was fearless in learning the languages of each place, if not mostly just to talk to the girls. I knew conversational bits and pieces of 12 languages, some that would never do me any good ever again anywhere else in the world (like Trukese and Chamorro.) The Philippines was the hardest, but drinks at the bar with friends made it much easier. As I got older though and I traveled less, the effort diminished. But when I went into law enforcement and had to take a crash course, the equivalent of 3 years in Spanish in 3 months, the love for it all came back. That spark is still in people as they age even if it’s not evident, you just have to give them a good reason. (Like girls or a job they want.)

  8. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Erika and Andreas. Of course why you are in the foreign country makes a big difference. And whether you and your country are respected. I was from a country that had great prestige and everyone treated me like a king and they still do. Most of the immigrants I know from other countries dislike being here. And they aren’t treated so warmly, especially the ones from Morocco. So you can imagine their attitude towards the language. In any case I too felt humiliated all the time but not everyone does. I know the old colonel was afraid of making a fool of himself.

    Are Anglo-Saxons the worst? I don’t know. My students used to explain to me that the reason Spaniards never learned foreign languages was their acute “sense of the ridiculous”. The French were famous for years for not learning foreign languages. All the foreigners had to come their way, even outside France.
    Americans don’t need to know other languages, for one. For us that is usually a fun hobby. And in the past, the British didn’t either. They were very comfortable being themselves and speaking their own regal tongue. I have always found American college kids good, eager learners.

    I wonder what Erika’s experience was in this. I agree with Andreas that it is harder to put up with the humiliation when you get older. But there comes an age again when you no longer worry so much that people will laugh at your mistakes. You just blurt out your words and laugh along.

    I had better stop.

  9. andreaskluth says:

    Have you considered that Colonel’s other possible motivation: fear? I learned English when I entered an American boarding school in my teens, and the first thing that I discovered is that the process has its fair share of humiliations. As an insecure teenage boy, I didn’t find that so amusing. But I pressed on, and English became the love of my life, as it did for Joseph Conrad once he conquered English.
    Then, as an adult, I tried to do it again, with French and Chinese. But now I was older, and no longer prepared to invest the humiliation, with so much else in my life already providing it. So I never got very far.
    Fear is the thing that stops most people from learning languages and understanding the world. And Anglo-Saxons seem to be more afraid than others, although I’m not sure about that.

  10. erikatakacs says:

    His argument may make sense in theory, but in practice may offend locals. It’s the best to at least make an effort, locals always appreciate it. I always thought when in a foreign country one should never forget they not only represent themselves as individuals but their country of origin as well.

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