Why I Still Learn Languages

Aug 20 2020
A refined knowledge of several languages provides a reservoir of meanings and enhances a person's ability to apprehend and express the plurality of the world. — David le Breton 

Over the years, I have learned 9 languages . For different reasons. And at various levels of proficiency.

With the increasingly effectiveness of machine translation that gets us answers in real-time, learning a language becomes less about the functional necessity.

This article explores the ways in which learning languages is valuable, beyond its immediate utility.

Sensing More Dimensions of Reality

The quote by David le Breton at the beginning of this post puts it more eloquently than I can.

There are so many possible dimensions of reality. Each language is a system of filters that captures the multitude of sensations and meanings in its own way.

Having more of these filters in your tool-kit is advantageous for parsing the world. It helps you better explain and enjoy it.

Surface Area of Appreciation

Translation attemps to map the experience in one culture to an analogous experience in a different culture.

But emotions and feelings are hard to capture. And some sensations are just uniquely expressed in a specific language. Definitions in a dictionary are not helpful in this case.

You may be able to appreciate the melodic phrases and the percussion of words when listening to poetry / rap music in a foreign language. But you miss out on the cleverness, technical wizardry, and layers of references.

Watching the works of the comedic master Stephen Chow without knowing Cantonese is as good as pinching your nose when eating a delicious meal.

Deeper Connections with People

As you learn a language, you naturally develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for others' cultures.

Ever experienced the moments of delight with a person from another culture when you show understanding of an obscure cultural reference? The surprised look on their face and the engaging conversation that ensues are just priceless.

It immediately draws you closer to each other. It is a genuine way of saying "I hear you." 

Found in Translation

Learning a language helps you not just understand the target language / culture itself, but more broadly about the human condition.

Much like the young fish asking "What is water?" , we often don't notice features of our environment. Not without a different lens.

Another example would be the Structure from Motion technique in computer vision, where moving the position of a 2D camera helps us estimate 3D structures in the images captured.

Learning languages is a reliable way to acquire these lenses, and a more flexible mind.

Travelling Becomes More Fun

This is perhaps obvious. But even though Google Translate has become very convenient, it is nice not having to look at my phone the whole time when I travel.

Knowing the local language is helpful for navigating and avoiding tourist traps. But more importantly, it expands what you are capable of noticing. It unlocks layers of experience that are otherwise hidden from you.

It shifts your attention from the the surface-level appreciation of sights and occasional signs you understand, to understanding the messaging of various displays and eavesdropping on the locals in addition to people-watching.

Oh, and you often get special treatment speaking the local language :)

Learning Languages Itself Becomes Easier

The more languages you already know, the easier it is for you to pick up a new one. It is perhaps the biggest factor in estimating how long it takes to learn a language .

This advantage can be direct: in learning a new language with cognates (words with a shared origin) and similar language structures. For instance, roughly 60% of Korean words have a Chinese origin. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are almost mutually intelligible. And the indirect effects include having a more flexible mind and getting better at adapting to new patterns of thoughts.

Knowing multiple languages is advantageous. The learning process is in most cases a fun and expansive journey. Even as technology advances and real-time machine translation becomes viable, it remains one of the most reliable means to enrich one's life.

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