With English expanding its footprint as the world's universal language, you might wonder, "Why learn another one?"
Well, if you're planning on relocating to another country for work, that should provide enough of a reason, right? But what if you don't really need to learn another language, what benefits will you derive from the many hours of studying and practicing that you'll need to undertake to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency?
In a widely watched TED Talk, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter delivers a convincing case for learning a language other than the one you grew up with.
1. To crack the code of a culture.
"If you want to imbibe the culture, you have to control to some degree the language that the culture happens to be conducted in. There's no other way."
The first foreign language I ever learned, Spanish, gave me a glimpse into the Hispanic world that intersected my own as a child growing up in South Florida. The year of French I took in my freshman year of college opened another door into a completely different and entirely mesmerizing culture. And, when I started to study Mandarin Chinese during the summer before my sophomore year, and then added Japanese to my academic schedule the following year, languages so radically different --and difficult to learn --from my native English, I felt like I was being transported into parallel universes.
My classroom studies in Chinese gave me the foundation I needed to achieve fluency in the language once I moved to Taiwan, and later Mainland China, to pursue my career. I can't imagine being able to appreciate or understand the culture in which I am surrounded each day without knowing how to communicate in the language that makes it function.
Learning a language takes a lot of time and hard work. But as you become more proficient and eventually even fluent in the language, you're rewarded with a deeper understanding of the culture, and a stronger ability to connect at a more meaningful level with people.
"One reason to learn [languages] is because they are tickets to being able to participate in the culture of the people who speak them, just by virtue of the fact that it is their code," says McWhorter.
2. Bilinguilism is healthy.
"It's been shown that if you speak two languages, dementia is less likely to set in, and that you are probably a better multitasker," says McWhorter. "And these are factors that set in early, and so that ought to give you some sense of when to give junior or juniorette lessons in another language. Bilingualism is healthy."
I wasn't aware of the research behind his claims, and it's still, fortunately, too early to tell whether being bilingual will help me stave off senility. But if that's what recent science tells us about the benefits of learning a foreign language, I'll go with that.
3. They're fun.
"Have you ever learned any Cambodian?" McWhorter asks his TED audience. "Me either, but if I did, I would get to roll around in my mouth not some baker's dozen of vowels like English has, but a good 30 different vowels scooching and oozing around in the Cambodian mouth like bees in a hive. That is what a language can get you."
Learning to write Mandarin Chinese, with its thousands of elegant characters that require rote memorization, or Japanese, which combines a Chinese-based character set with two phonetic scripts all in the same sentence, consumed a good chunk of my study hours at college. But learning them in parallel was also a lot of fun, and to this day, I am constantly challenged and often entertained by Chinese, a language I use every day.
"Languages are just an awful lot of fun. Much more fun than we're often told."
4. They're easier to learn than ever before.
"It used to be that you had to go to a classroom, and there would be some diligent teacher -- some genius teacher in there --but that person was only in there at certain times," McWhorter reminds us. "Today you can...teach yourself any language that you want to with wonderful sets such as Rosetta Stone."
The websites, the apps, the live tutors who can walk you through lessons from thousands of miles away over Skype, these are incredibly powerful --and generally very affordable -- resources that were simply nonexistent when I was studying my first few languages.
"[You] couldn't have done it 20 years ago when the idea of having any language you wanted in your pocket, coming from your phone, would have sounded like science fiction to very sophisticated people."