The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #13 January / February 2015
Why Do People Learn Languages?
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2015 | 

Human language is our primary form of communication throughout the world. Most of us learn what becomes our native language from our parents and the people around us so that we can communicate easily. However, for some, knowing just one language is not enough. They find a desire, and in some cases, a need, to learn a second or third language.

The reason for doing this is not easy to explain to a non-learner. They might suggest that learning another language is useless. After all, there is already technology in use, like Google Translate, to convert any text needed, right? In that situation, it is tempting to respond that with that attitude, many things are unnecessary. "We have spelling checkers, so no one needs to learn to spell." They would probably agree with you on that. "We have frozen dinners and canned food, so no one needs to learn to cook." They might not like that one as much. "We have video games, so no one needs to do sports like football." That might get you punched in certain parts of the world.

And of course, the one question that is likely to make any language lover want to draw blood: "Why learn another language? Everyone speaks English already!"

Why Learn?

Part of the population may have gone on to actually use a language they acquired, or they may have been raised with a second language, making them bilingual. It might help them in their daily lives, such as in communicating with family members or dealing with others in their business. To them, it is not useless, but they do not really think of it beyond that.

For the serious language learner, the one that actively strives to master not just one new language but several, there is never really a question as to the usefulness or practicality of what they learn. It is a quest that justifies itself, in the same way that a cook can learn to feed himself but a chef views cooking as an art, something to be perfected. If you ask one of these people why they do it, they might give you a variety of answers, but they are really saying to you "How can you even ask that?". To them, you are the odd one for not learning more languages.

The main reason that I have found people learning several languages is that they want to communicate with many different people that would normally be outside of their cultural group. Sounds obvious, right? Actually, there are millions of people that do not want to talk to anyone outside of their own neighbourhood, never mind outside of their language, culture, or country. I'm not talking just about the United States either. Despite the stereotype, there are plenty of non-Americans who are just as provincial, if not more so. They are caught up in their own daily lives and have no need or desire to explore anything beyond it.

While in college, there was a possibility for me to visit the USSR with a group of students in one of my Russian history classes. To me, this was a fantastic opportunity that I was definitely not going to pass up. The trip was going to cost each student one thousand dollars, but that seemed like a bargain. I wanted to visit the beautiful onion domes I had only seen in pictures, to walk the streets of an entirely different culture and way of life. I was never one that was caught up in the cold-war dramas, so there was no fear in my mind of what was behind the "Iron Curtain". I even decided I had better learn to drink Vodka, so as not to offend anyone.

They might find themselves drawn to a culture or people without having visited it, but through their exposure in other ways, like art and media, they desire to learn the language.

When I shared my enthusiasm with some fellow classmates, I was met with looks of confusion and a bit of fear. No matter how I tried to explain how great this opportunity was, they just gave me blank stares. One asked me how much it was going to cost, and when I told him, he gasped. "Do you know how many floppy discs you could buy with that amount?" he asked me incredulously (I was in a geek school, obviously). Then it was my chance to stare. While they could not grasp why I would ever want to visit another country (in my case, again, because by then I had already visited Japan, Canada and Italy) while I could not understand why they would not want to.

Perhaps for that difference of view, we never got to make the trip. Although we tried twice to organize the trip with my Russian history professor, we were never able to get more than a few people committed to going, and making the trip with just a handful of students was not economically feasible. Soon after that, the Soviet Union collapsed, removing forever the chance to see that empire.

Another reason that people love learning new languages is for the challenge as well as the beauty of it. For some people, there is a particular draw to the sound and flow of another tongue.

Wanting to learn about other cultures is the third reason. The language and culture of a county are closely tied together. An often used example of this is the relationship of Eskimos with snow: "The Eskimos have fifty words for snow". While the number given is often changed, and even the term "eskimo" itself relates to a few different languages, it does show how the world around us, our culture and lifestyle, are reflected in our language.

Many people have travelled to another country, fallen in love with it and the people, and thus endeavoured to then learn the language in order to better relate to it all. They might find themselves drawn to a culture or people without having visited it, but through their exposure in other ways, like art and media, they desire to learn the language.

My grandmother acted as a missionary to Japan for a number of years, and she also taught advanced English. When I was twelve, she was invited to return to visit friends, and so most of my family and her travelled around Japan for two weeks. I loved the experience. It was my first real experience in a completely foreign country. I have family in Canada, but to someone from the United States, Canada does not really feel like a foreign country.

If you ask one of these people why they do it, they might give you a variety of answers, but they are really saying to you "How can you even ask that?".

While there, we met many people, stayed with different families, and got pulled into the entire culture. I helped make decorations for the Tanabata festival, learned to eat with chopsticks, and even wore a traditional boy's costume at times. It also gave me my first exposure to Anime, the Japanese cartoons.

I was too young to understand the concept of "ugly American", the term often used to describe how we act when abroad: demanding things be in English, wanting everything like it is in "back home", and generally just rude and ignorant. I embraced it all, and did my best to learn some Japanese. I was able to use the basic greetings and polite phrases, which pleased the people I met greatly. I wanted to understand more of this great country and the wonderful people I met, so learning even a little of the language was just the normal thing, to me, to do.

Some people I have met since who are learning Japanese they are doing so in order to watch Anime without subtitles or dubbing, so it may even be a small part of the cultures that inspires someone to study the language.

And You?

If you are reading this article, you are probably one of those people that is learning another language. You may be studying one now, or have already learned a few to the point you can converse with others. If that is the case, then I am sure you have your own reasons for learning. Perhaps for you it is a practical reason, like for a job position. More likely, however, it is because you feel drawn to them. For you, exploring a new language is a passion that you cannot ignore. Whatever your reason is, don't let anyone stop you from following your drive to learn.

Why Do People Learn Languages?
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Open book (title); Children outside school; Couple overlooking city; Girls reading; Knowledge is Power chalkboard

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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