Reasons to Learn a New Language

John McWhorter’s TED Talk

Although, I have to say I don’t completely agree with some of his assertions, I completely agree that the more languages one knows, the better we all are.

I think there are a lot of reasons, but I first want to address the one that you’re probably most likely to have heard of, because actually it’s more dangerous than you might think. And that is the idea that a language channels your thoughts, that the vocabulary and the grammar of different languages gives everybody a different kind of acid trip, so to speak. That is a marvelously enticing idea, but it’s kind of fraught.

He uses the word “fraught”  a couple of times to describe the scenario, but I’m not entirely clear on what he means. I’m not convinced by his dismissal of the influence that different languages have on our way of experiencing the world. In Russian (IIRC), there are two separate words for hues of colour that English would refer to as green. As a result of the linguistic distinction, speakers of the language have a better developed visual means of discerning between shades of green that speakers of languages that made no such distinction.

In many languages, there are singular words for a large number of relatives, such that it would be impossible to speak the language in any natural way without knowing where the interlocutor fits in their family, and into larger society. This is something else we don’t do in English. Cousin, Aunt, Uncle cover a lot of relations that would have numerous terms to discern maternal or paternal relatives, their generation, and such like.

I’m discovering more and more how languages such as Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) are mostly made up of verbs that are altered using prefixes, suffixes, affixes and such. It makes for a much more dynamic and engaged world when one can only refer to it in terms of verbs.

And languages, in the end, are ultimately about the sound that is produced, whether through listening to a speaker, or hearing the inner narration of printed words, or imagined conversation, and the sound of each language carries something different with it. I heard a conversation in passing between two gentlemen. They spoke in English with very different accents. One spoke very nasally with clipped vowels, the other spoke with deep rich vowels. They were having a laugh about something.

McWhorter goes on to list his four reasons:

One [reason] is that if you want to imbibe a culture, if you want to drink it in, if you want to become part of it, …you have to control to some degree the language that the culture happens to be conducted in.

He further points out that learning to express oneself in a second language requires a means of mastering a certain level of versatility. If you only know the rudiments, then you come off sounding wooden, and your expression is very limited. To learn a language, really learn it.

Second reason: it’s been shown that if you speak two languages, dementia is less likely to set in…

Addressed in an earlier post the Golden Age of Golden Years

And then, third — languages are just an awful lot of fun.

Yes. Yes they are.

[Fourth,] we live in an era when it’s never been easier to teach yourself another language… Couldn’t have done it 20 years ago when the idea of having any language you wanted in your pocket, coming from your phone, would have sounded like science fiction

While this is true, he makes the assumption that we all have easy access to smart phones, apps, etc. I’ve found a great language learning method in the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. It’s a flashcard system that schedules practice to get the words/grammar/etc into long term memory without spending a lot of time doing repetitious exercises that play in the short-term. There’s a Fluent Forever web site with some resources. And check out anki, the digital scheduled recall system (ie a flashcard tool).


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