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Summary Thoughts On Learning New Languages

English is my primary language. Growing up in the United States I’ve really had no reason to learn any other, although I’ve been tempted at various times to learn Spanish as a practical matter.

I did study Spanish in my early schooling, and Italian in my later schooling. Despite a combined 7 years spent learning foreign languages, my fluency and literacy remains limited with both.

I’ve long considered the idea of learning another language to be romantic. Speaking other languages can open up new opportunities in life– a whole group of people you previously couldn’t communicate with are now people you can exchange ideas and value with. Studying many of my philosophical heroes of the past, I noticed how many were not just bilingual but multilingual, able to read, write, argue and convince in a variety of languages. I once bought a copy of Wheelock’s Latin after realizing I had missed the opportunity to study this dead language in high school like the other nerds; I convinced myself I might take up an independent study in my abundant free time (this was being imagined when I was still a college student and so my use of “abundant free time” is less sarcastic than it would’ve been intended if I referred to the present) and maybe even convince a friend or two to learn some phrases so we could converse in front of others on the subway or at a bar and confuse the hell out of them. To this day I read about early political figures in American history and their classical (read: European) education consisting of studying Greek and Latin grammar and I feel a twinge of regret.

And with all the talk of the inevitable rise of China and its coming economic dominance, I have often considered picking up some Mandarin so I can continue doing business under new overlords.

But I never quite get to the part where I seriously dedicate myself to learning a new language. And rather than beat myself up as lazy, stupid or otherwise incompetent, I’ve instead spent some time trying to rationalize why this has not come to pass. Here are my thoughts to date:

  1. English is the third most widely spoken language in the world (by native speakers) and based upon my travels to Central and South America, Europe and Asia, it appears to be the secondary language of choice for a “universal” non-native tongue and is part of the mandatory curriculum in many developed and developing country school curriculums.
  2. It is difficult (for me) to learn a language if I am not going to be using it frequently for practical reasons; my language learning has accelerated whenever I’ve been in the place the language is spoken on the street when I am learning it formally. Until I am living in a place where English is not the primary language, it will be inefficient and impractical for me to learn another language and gain fluency
  3. Without a practical reason such as #2, my decision to learn any language besides English is entirely arbitrary; I could set a goal for myself such as “Become fluent in German” but why is that worth doing as opposed to “Become fluent in French” or “Become fluent in Mandarin”? There needs to be a specific goal for the learning besides “acquiring the language for its own sake”
  4. While many of my intellectual heroes spoke, read and wrote in multiple (European, typically) languages, they did so out of necessity, not to prove an intellectual point. They were either international scholars who needed to be able to communicate in languages beside their native one for purposes of research or idea-sharing, or they inhabited border regions or cosmopolitan political centers where speaking multiple languages had a functional or official benefit. I don’t face those circumstances in my own life.
  5. I have many competing demands on my time and many other subjects I’d like to master besides gaining a secondary language fluency. I could learn another language, just as I could learn an instrument such as piano or guitar, but it would mean purposefully giving up another valued activity or area of inquiry and I haven’t been prepared to make a tradeoff like that so far.

One life activity I derive a lot of enjoyment from and which I hope to continue to do not only for myself but with my family is traveling around the world. I think one of the highest values learning another language with fluency would have for me is making such travels more accessible. However, because these travels are usually limited in duration and because many of the locals speak English more passably than I can learn bits and phrases of their language, it’s usually a better use of time to brush up on key words and phrases or stumble through in English than to try to learn a whole language for a couple of weeks on the road.

For now, it seems, language learning will be relegated to a high ideal without practical implementation in my life. However, I have been considering whether formal language instruction (immersive or otherwise) would be an important part of my future children’s education.

Update: here is a strongly-written article arguing 10 reasons why Westerners should still be studying Latin.

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