8 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language
Updated: Apr 6
Do you speak multiple languages?
Languages are fascinating. It has always been a hobby of mine to study language and try to understand foreign language.
The value of languages
Language is how we communicate; it's how we convey ideas, thoughts, and feelings. If we have a very strong grasp of language, we're capable of doing more and influencing more people than if we didn't.
Language learning is incredibly difficult: especially learning a new language from scratch. Fortunately, you've done it at least once, since you speak English. Obviously, you know a language, so you can learn another one. It just takes time, patience, persistence, and practice.
The journey can be very difficult and full of bumps. But it is very exciting and rewarding when you finally develop that skill.
8 reasons to learn a foreign language
1. Learn a new way of thinking.
It is amazing how the language we use shapes the way we see the world, the way we think, and what we think about.
In Russian, there are two words for the for the color blue. There is голубой for light blue and синий for dark blue. An interesting fact about Russians is they can more quickly distinguish between light and dark blue because they have different words for it.
If you think about it, they have to distinguish between light and dark blue every time they think about it, so they can put a word to it. We don’t have to do that in English.
On the flip side, languages that are lacking some colors like pink tend to have a very difficult time distinguishing between red and pink, because pink is not really a distinct color to them; it’s just a shade of red.
There are many other ways that language impacts the way you think. The origins of words have different meanings and different languages emphasize different things with different words.
For instance, in English, Sunday is the day of the sun. But in Russian, it's very fascinating that the word for Sunday: воскресенье differs by two letters from the word resurrection: воскрешение. So if you think about where that word came from, it seems they named Sunday after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which as a Christian girl, I think is wonderful and interesting.
You see how different languages give you different perspectives on things.
Another interesting thing I have learned in my Russian studies is they have two words for why: зачем and почему. One means “for what purpose” and one means “from what cause”, which is a fantastic distinction. In English, we don’t often think about this distinction, and for me at least, it’s difficult even to describe, because we can only use the word why for each.
Another example is that there are different languages that have a stronger emphasis on gender than languages like English that don't have gender nouns. In this fantastic TED Talk, Lera Boroditsky explain that a German person will often describe a bridge with stereotypical feminine adjectives, like beautiful. They do this because bridge is a feminine word in their language. On the flip side, in Spanish, they often describe a bridge using masculine adjectives, such as strong and firm, because bridge is a masculine word in their language.
The genders will affect how you see things and also how you don't see things. In English-speaking countries, it seems we don't care about gender as much and there tends to be a fuzzier line with gender, because it's not emphasized in our day to day language. A Russian can hardly say anything without specifying the gender of the person they are talking about, but in English, we don't even think about it half the time.
Another example is the more simplistic languages, primitive languages, like the conlang Toki Pona. It is designed as a language to simplify your thoughts. In Toki Pona, you don't have to think about as much: you only focus on the core basics and what's most important in the sentence. It's a very simple-minded language, which means you have to simplify your mind in order to speak it. I highly recommend looking into Toki Pona; it's a fantastic language, and a very interesting thought exercise. Plus, it is the easiest language in the world to learn and you can do it very quickly. I gained proficiency in Toki Pona after just a few weeks of studying.
Language shapes our thoughts and it can give a lot of insights into the thoughts of others.
That's one of the reasons why I think that preserving language from various cultures is so important. There are things that aren't emphasized in other languages that are emphasized in certain languages. You can’t think of a concept that you can’t describe. I know that is true in math; if you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.
Speaking of math, languages that lack numbers affect the mathematical ability of the speakers of that language, because they don't think about numbers. The Pirahã tribe in the Amazon can’t keep track of numbers, because numbers aren’t important to them. You can hear some about it in this video.
Whatever you have words for is what you can think about. You can’t understand something that you can’t explain.
2. Mental exercise
Another reason to learn a foreign language is the mental exercise. Languages take a toll. They are very difficult. Languages are combinations of logic, human obscurity, and memorization. Thus it takes a lot of various aspects of mental power: you have to memorize thousands of vocabulary words, you have to learn grammar rules, conjugations, and all sorts of odd things. Plus you have to learn all the exceptions to the rules, because natural languages are created over time and they don't necessarily follow pure logic. They're more organic. That's both frustrating and exciting, but when you finally put the pieces together and see how things came together, it’s really neat.
3. Connections between languages
Another thing that's very interesting is studying multiple languages at once or just playing around with multiple languages at once, because it's fascinating to see the commonalities between various languages. For instance, there's a surprising connection between German, Russian, and French. They're all from different language families (respectively, Germanic, Slavic, and Romance). Russian has some French and German words that are nothing like the English words. Thus, the more languages you see, the more you start to make those connections. Greek and Latin are famous for this, as many of our words stem from Greek or Latin roots.
Incidentally, Greek is very similar to the Russian alphabet. Of course, Latin uses the same alphabet we use. There are many influences there, but something interesting I discovered is in Latin, there are no articles. This shocked me, because Romance languages and Germanic languages have a lot of articles (especially Romance languages: they put articles all over the place).
On the other hand, Russian doesn't have articles. Which is funny to me, because I always thought of Russian as a more Greek style of language, since their alphabets are so similar, but Greek has articles. It’s amazing to learn more about the web of influences on a language and you kind of wonder, where did these things come from? It creates this intricate history in your mind. That's very curious (to me, at least).
Another interesting fact is the Greek word for pineapple: ανανάς, is the same in Russian, Norwegian, Slovene, French, German, and Italian. I never noticed that until I started studying German, French, and Russian together.
Another reason I love learning languages is the opportunity to express yourself in a different language. When you are speaking in a different language, you take on almost a different personality (at least I do). There's some fun to that. You take on a new accent, new personality, and you see things differently. Sometimes I prefer to say things in Russian than in English, because it makes more sense to me in Russian.
For instance, instead of translating of course, I generally try to translate the word конечно, because конечно makes more sense to me. Or in Russian, they have three words for where: где, meaning located, куда, meaning going where, and откуда, meaning where from. Thus you can say, “Where are you from?” or “Where are you going?” so much more easily in Russian: “Откуда вы?” or “Вы куда?”
Thus you can kind of pull together different thoughts from different languages, as well as different ideas and personalities, and kind of mix them all up into your unique individual personality. I envy that polyglots can switch languages around and convey more full meanings because of this understanding.
5. Human connection
The human connection of language is very important (probably the most important). Unfortunately, I haven't had very much experience with that, because I don't know very many people who speak other languages. However occasionally I’ll have run ins.
Even if I can say at least one sentence in someone's native language, it's amazing how much that means to them. Even if I'm just saying, “I don't speak Telugu,” in Telugu, almost every single time their eyes brighten and they think, “Oh my gosh, you just spoke in my language!” That speaks to them a little bit more strongly than their second language. (Note: I think people are more impressed when their language is somewhat unknown by most people.)
There's a saying that if you speak to a man in his second language, you speak to his brain, but if you speak to him in his native language, you speak to his heart. I like that. I like it when I can say something that they don't have to think about to understand: something that's so ingrained in them, they automatically understand without even having to think.
There's something exciting about it. Even if they speak perfect English, it's still exciting to hear your mother tongue, especially if you're living in a foreign country.
I think the personal connections like being able to talk to people and their native language is very, very important. Unfortunately, I'm still not conversationally proficient, but even a little bit goes a long way.
6. The thrill of understanding
Another reason to learn a language is that thrill when you finally have a conversation in that language. When you actually understood what that person said, you’re actually responding, and you know what's going on! That is an amazing feeling.
Not long ago, you might have stood there, confused. Maybe your buddy is standing beside you and has no idea what's going on. What used to sound like gibberish to you now has meaning. I do that sometimes with my husband; I'll say something in Russian, and he has no idea what I'm saying, but I'll think, “Why don't you understand this? This makes sense.”
The thrill of being able to communicate your thoughts or even just talk to yourself in a language is priceless. It’s amazing to think I can talk about most of my feelings right now, in two other languages, besides English.
7. Private conversation
Another reason to learn a language is it's kind of fun having a language that only you and a few other people can understand. You can talk to your buddies in the language. I sometimes will whisper something to my husband in Toki Pona because I don't want other people to know what I'm saying.
While it's not necessarily the best of reasons, it is kind of nice and unique that you can have your own little conversation without snooping ears. It’s nice to not worry about people listening to you and noticing what you're talking about, when your conversation has nothing to do with them.
8. Develop your mind
Another good reason to learn a language is because it develops your mind. It helps you learn to make connections, it improves your memory, and it can hold off the onset of dementia.
It can even help you with your own native language. My paternal grandpa lived in Norway for two years, and he said that he was a C student in English until he went to Norway. Then afterwards he got A's, because learning Norwegian helped his English so much. It can help you in your native language and it can help you understand how language works, how grammar works, how to remember things, and gives you new associations and new words for things that you never had before.
As both videos linked mention, in Kuuk Thaayorre, there are no relative directions. Everyone has to use the cardinal directions, even to refer to your left hand. This develops an incredible sense of direction in these aboriginal people, because they have to always keep track of the cardinal directions, just to make conversation. This is an incredible example of the power of language in shaping higher levels of thinking and focus.
My language learning journey has been a little bit different. It’s had its ups and downs, as many have. I have been studying Russian since 2004, because my best friend growing up was from Belarus. I have not seen her since 2011. Though recently, I do occasionally get to instant message her, which is a blessing that I've been able to do that.
I started learning Russian so that I could better communicate with her. However, she has always been much better in English than I’ve been in Russian and I'm still not comfortable talking to her in Russian because I have issues with confidence in languages. (Plus Russians will tell you when you're bad at it.)
Before I studied Russian, I was pretty good at Spanish in school. I enjoyed it a lot. But once I started Russian, I got very confused with the different alphabets and the different words. Russian completely screwed up my Spanish, so I ditched Spanish.
I started picking up Spanish again recently. I think my issue was because I was so young, it was difficult for me to separate the two languages in my head. I only wanted to work on Russian, so I did for many years, and I didn't really get very far. I've done a lot of Russian; I learned to conjugate the verbs very early on, I developed pretty good phonics, and I learned nominative adjectives and how to work with those. I’ve learned a lot and I've been complimented many times on my Russian skills, but I'm still not fluent. I can have a decent conversation though if the Russian is very patient with me.
After I got married, I started getting a little bit more into languages. I kind of did Russian on and off when I had the time. I learned a lot of songs and did some textbooks and things like that. One of the things that really set me on my journey was Duolingo. It got me in the habit of daily practice in Russian.
The consistent practice helped me make leaps and bounds of improvement since I've been married.
I've added a few other languages to my studies, because I'm very fascinated with languages. I want to learn all of them. As long as they don't have another alphabet: I've sworn off any alphabet besides the Latin alphabet, Russian alphabet, and Greek alphabet. I can read those three, and that's it.
Currently my five languages I'm working on are: Toki Pona, Russian, Spanish, Norwegian, and Hawaiian.
My reasons for picking each one of them are as follows.
I picked Toki Pona because it's a very simple language. It's something that I felt like I could teach someone and they would actually speak with me. It is a very interesting thought exercise and it has helped me a lot in my language study in other languages, because it helps you talk around ideas.
I am learning Russian because my best friend growing up was from Belarus, but also just because I fell in love with the language and the culture of Russia, and I want to finish learning that language.
I want to learn Spanish, because my dad speaks Spanish and no one in my family speaks Spanish besides Him, so recently I decided I wanted to honor him by learning the language that only he knows.
I picked Norwegian for similar reasons. My late paternal grandfather, who I mentioned previously, spoke Norwegian, as does my grandma (a little bit) and my aunt. Plus, there is Scandinavian blood in my family, and Norwegian is the most easily understood by all the Scandinavian languages (plus, it’s supposed to be pretty easy to learn). So I want to learn Norwegian to honor my family heritage as well.
Hawaiian is a very interesting language to me, being an endangered language and being such a beautiful language. It's one of the only official languages in the US, besides English. I thought of American heritage in a sense, even though Hawaiians are not really American heritage, but Hawaiian is a native language of an American territory. It's also a very beautiful language, and it's endangered, so I can try to learn it to help contribute to the revitalization of this language and its culture. (If I ever do learn it, then my husband and I have to take a trip to Hawaii - motivation!)
Language learning tools
I've tried a lot of tools like Drops, Memrise, Mango, Babbel, and Beelinguapp, but I’m not as fond of those.
The tools that I consistently use are Duolingo and Clozemaster. I want to try Dinolingo as well, when I have kids.
I don't care if you think you are the worst at learning languages or if you know 50 languages: I want you to spend 10-20 minutes looking into a language that you do not know. Listen to it on YouTube, read about it, learn the alphabet or learn some of the phonics. Do something that has to do with that language. Maybe at some point you'll fall in love with the culture or the ideology behind it.