There are thousands of languages being spoken in the world every day. Learning them all would be impossible; in fact, most people find it hard to learn more than one. But the point I want to make today is this: If you’re not learning a language now, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, and quite badly. It’s a strong statement, but I will stand by it – and if you read on, I will explain myself.
The (not-so-obvious) benefits of language learning
If you were to come up with reasons for learning languages, the list would probably feature some well-known motives. Getting a good job or communicating with your newly extended family – all this is known, and has led many people to learn languages successfully. But what if you were to look really hard, and come up with some really intriguing reasons?
Here’s the trick: language does amazing things to you. Here are just a few examples of how your first language changed you:
- – It let you communicate how you feel;
- – It allowed you to name things around you;
- – It made you part of a community, along with its history, heritage and ideas;
- – It provided tools for planning, creativity and improvising.
I want to argue that learning a foreign language allows you to recreate that in completely new ways. I know what I mean here. Many times, during classes with adult and “serious” students, I’ve seen them suddenly “get it” and I’ve watched the pure, child-like joy on their faces. They’d just learned a new word – they felt like they were seven again!
To sum up: learning a language involves many perks and benefits. Some of them you’re well aware of, some others you discover in the process itself.
So what happens when you decide not to learn a language?
Self-sabotage: “My own language is enough for me”
I’ve heard this so often, especially from native speakers of English. It’s the most common excuse, but it’s not the whole truth. If, like me, you’re keen on discovering what really motivates people to do (or refuse to do) things, you’ll start looking between the lines here.
Here’s what I think I can hear, when people say “My language is enough for me”:
“I don’t want to leave my comfort zone. I’d much prefer the world to conform to my vision. I don’t want to be wrong about the world. I don’t want to make mistakes. I was brought up this way and I’ve worked hard to make sure things don’t change. I don’t want things to change. And I sure as hell don’t want to be seen trying, changing things, upsetting the status quo, exposing myself to ridicule, criticism and uncertainty. I’m scared. Get me out of here.”
Seth Godin calls this “the lizard brain.” And it’s not really a rare thing: each of us has one. It used to save our ass in times when instincts and speed were essential for survival. The problem with the lizard brain is this: it can sabotage each of your creative, bold or risky ideas. And learning a language can be creative, bold and risky.
By refusing to learn a language, you’re sabotaging yourself. Sure, you’re making it harder for your bosses to appreciate you, and for your next employer to hire you. And you’re definitely making it harder for yourself to enjoy travelling. But there’s so much more; actually, these two things could be the least worrying things.
Let’s just say you’re refusing to learn one language. Out of the thousands, just one. We’ll make it easy. So, by refusing to learn one foreign language:
- – You’re excluding yourself from one community, its stories, ideas and issues.
- – You’re missing out on one way of thinking, one system of organising reality.
- – You’re not giving yourself one other point of view, and losing one perspective on things.
- – You’re not letting your brain grow in this one way.
- – You’re not setting out on one big adventure.
“So what?” I can hear you say.
Well, here’s why this sucks: you can no longer afford to miss out on all these.
Not in the world in which everybody is slowly but surely becoming more connected. Not in the long-tail, attention-crazy, real-time, post-industrialist world. Not in the world with seven billion people.
Your language may be the connecting force in today’s world. But if this is all you’ve got, why should I connect with you?
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