What makes a language worth learning?

Old or new, green or experienced, we’ve all heard it from the typical party pooper. People don’t know how hurtful and demotivating it can be to tell you “learning that language is a waste of time”, and it’s even worse when you’re just starting out, everything is shiny and new, thrilled out of your brain that you’re learning to communicate with other people, learning to enjoy other cultures. Learning about how much commitment learning a language requires is hard enough–you don’t need other people raining on your parade.

I’ve written before about the benefits of learning a language, so that particular topic is nothing new to The Polyglotist. If you’ve been around this blog for long enough, you’ll know I believe languages are learnt best when an emotional connection exists between them and the learner. In all honesty, I like to think I’ve given language learning as a hobby a stellar reputation among prospective learners, but as of late, I’ve realized not everyone thinks as I do. Not everyone gives languages the same emotional and intellectual weight in their lives I do, but boy, they sure like sharing an opinion. My thoughts on that right now:

“So what?”

I’ve been learning languages for nearly ten years now, and I’ve had my fair share of unexpected answers. When I was learning Japanese, it obviously made me mad that people made assumptions about the usefulness of my newfound linguistic love, but with time, I developed a thicker skin to hurtful remarks, and deafer ears to stupid arguments. I realized languages can sometimes be a deeply politically charged subject, and I learnt to quickly recognize who might take issue at the languages I’m learning (even when, if you think about it, it’s really none of their business).

However, I’m the first one to acknowledge that it takes a while to develop this mindset. Particularly when you’re young and would like approval from those around you, being singled out because you’re learning something as inherently foreign as a language that is not your own can sting badly. In recognition to this, I’d like to share my thoughts on what has made languages worth learning for me, beyond the obvious mental and social benefits. These are really arguments you can recite to yourself during rough times, or something you can try to fight a hater back with (although if you ask me my opinion, the wise internet gods have taught us that haters will hate, and thus there’s very little point in trying to fight a hater).

It’s a deeply personal choice.

If you’ve ever been forced to learn French or Spanish in high school, I’m guessing right about now you must be raising an eyebrow (or both), but I mean it. When you’re learning a language because you chose to, you distinguish yourself from everyone who is learning because they’ve been told they have to. That alone makes you different–a good type of different.

Whether it is that you decided to learn Spanish because of your heritage, or Italian because you want to live in Rome, or Arabic because you’d like to better understand its culture, or Japanese because you like to read manga, your choice is a completely valid one, and you should never let anybody question that.

It requires commitment, effort and resolve.

These are positive qualities, and something not found in everyone. A misconception within the language community seems to place the most commitment and resolve in those who’ve learnt more than two languages, but I’ll let you in on the truth on this one: it takes the same perseverance and resolve to learn one language that it takes to learn five or twenty.

It keeps your feet firmly down on earth.

If you’re truly into this for the love of learning more about languages, cultures, and the world you were born in, you’re past the point of showing off. Sure, sometimes it may feel nice to feel admired by other people because you’re capable of doing something really cool, but deep down, you know you’re doing it for yourself and for the sake of furthering yourself as a human being, not to become a walking party trick.

It makes you a more introspective person.

This one I realized after I’d been doing this for several years. Learning languages made me, of all things, into a better learner. This is because it forced me to take a step back and analyze how I was learning, what worked and what didn’t, how I could improve, and most painfully, how I might have been sabotaging my own learning through bad habits. A point comes where you realize you’re the only one responsible for what you do and learn in life–languages may have brought that moment on crashing on my head, and forced me to

And lastly…

It forces you out of your comfort zone.

The feeling you get during that moment when you take off the training wheels and start speaking, however clumsily, however incorrectly, in your target language, is something amazing and yet really hard to express. I know from repeated experience that the aftermath of this first successful attempt at communication is a mixture between a glorious feeling of achievement and a discombobulating sense of disorientation.

I’ve become addicted to this daze I affectionately call “the linguist’s high”. Recently, I realized that the second half of it, the disorientation, comes as I realize what I’ve done and start trying to find my way back to my comfort zone. You see, adventuring outside the zone is a good thing sometimes (not to mention a necessary habit for learning any new language).

 

Without going into the mental benefits or the intellectual and professional perks of learning a language, all these points have strongly made language learning a worthwhile experience for me. Now I’d like to know what has made them worthwhile for you. Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Marko Sanden ,

    Great insight Siskia into the challenges of language learning. Often we think about the nuts and bolts of grammar rules, etc., but you have given a unique take on the personal side of the process. Very refreshing! Thanks and Keep your best foot forward. You are on the right path and helping all of us to keep moving forward. Thank you for sharing!