Learning a new language: why we should bother!

Learning a new language: why we should bother!

Paris-IgorI find myself beginning this week’s post with the same reference as last week’s, to Simon Kuper’s piece about language learning, entitled “Learning another language? Don’t bother”.

By way of recap, the writer states that native speakers of English have little reason to learn other languages, since the rest of the world is now mastering English, at least at conversational levels. And technology, in the form of applications that translate instantly (and even speak for us!), will be there to help us navigate world travel. Kuper concludes that, for English-speaking people today, the costs of language study probably outweigh the benefits.

The author opines that the only useful level of linguistic mastery is perfect fluency, which he defines as the ability to say and understand everything in a language, even if one’s grammar and accent remain far from flawless. Only when we achieve this level of fluency can we truly understand a country and its people. To achieve perfect fluency, though, you need to start very young, preferably in infancy.

After I cited the article a week ago, a reader wrote to tell me that many people were leaving comments, particularly on the author’s assertion that there is little reason to learn a second language. Almost all who wrote in told personal stories of what their foreign language adventures had taught them, disputing the notion that studying a language is simply not worth the effort. Since I found their stories thoughtful and engaging, I followed the comments in the electronic edition for a few days.

As someone with an interest in language learning, and having been reasonably successful achieving fluency in several languages as an adult, I was interested in the reactions of readers to Kuper’s point of view. It turns out that numerous individuals had personal examples that contradicted the basic premise of the article. In fact, many people wrote that they or someone they know had indeed mastered a language to a level at or near perfect fluency, despite not having begun as children.

One aspect that struck me in many readers’ comments was how emotion-laden they were. When reading the observations of these individuals, we feel their true passion for learning, whether they achieve perfect fluency or not. Several people mentioned their disdain for the article’s short-sighted, cost-benefit perspective, declaring instead that language study for adults should be seen as a fun activity, and a mentally challenging pursuit with its own intrinsic rewards.

Upon reflection, two aspects of this article are particularly troublesome for me. The first is its pessimistic view of learning, the notion that after a certain age our ability to master new things is severely diminished. My work with all types of people for the past two decades has generally contradicted this view.

Numerous individuals I have had occasion to work with over the course of these years have shown a remarkable ability to master the skills of leadership communication by working diligently at it, even if they begin with little “natural talent” or “charisma”. My experience leads me to a far more optimistic concept of what adults can learn, one that has become a basic tenet of my world view: With sufficient interest and motivation, with the right type of coaching and practice, we can learn just about anything, provided we are willing to put in the necessary time. Among my friends and colleagues, I have seen this notion applied to learning a wide range of complex skills, including mastering a foreign language.

The second element of the article that troubles me is the reduction of decisions about how we “invest” our time to cold calculations. How can we possibly calculate the return on our investment of an intellectual activity, particularly one that expands our horizons and improves our cognitive capacities? Should we not take a broader perspective?

This article and the subsequent online discussion lead me to think that we must look far beyond the narrow, utilitarian perspective and see what language study can bring us, even if we never achieve perfect fluency. The benefits of this type of learning are many, though they may be somewhat difficult to quantify. Next time, I will write more about some of those benefits.

Image: Flickr-user Igor

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