Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend!