The Value of Learning a Second Language

What is the value of learning a second language aside from the obvious practical benefits : the fact that you can talk to people who don’t speak your first language, can read things which have not been translated, can politely talk to people who don’t find it easy to speak your first language and can read things in the original.

When I was in high school adults tried to convince me to try to learn a second language by claiming that it broadens the mind. They failed. Since then I have, more or less, learned Italian. What have I gained ?

My impression is that my mind reminds just about as narrow as it was before.

I asked Elisabetta Addis (the woman to whom I am married) what she gained from learning English. She said it was very useful, because by learning a second living language she learned that there is more than one way to structure concepts, that is that the structure of Italian is not the structure of truth, but is rather just one of many equally valid structures developed for historical reasons. I confessed that I have had the impression that Aristotle was not always totally clear on the distinction between his immense contributions to understanding Greek and to understanding thought and logic and would have confidently claimed that true though was only possible in Greek. I was as usual speaking from ignorance.

Trying to understand my different impression, she suggested that math is, for this purpose, like a second language (she learned English and math beyond a fairly elementary level simultaneously and imagine how fun that was).

I said that I suspect that part of the reason is that no one could possible mistake the structure of English for the structure of truth. Partly, of course, English spelling is totally arbitrary and makes no sense. Also English is not logical because it is part German and part French. For example to find if a claim is true one verifies it. Or steer meat is beef and sheep meat is mutton. That is, since English is a weird hybrid, English is its own second language.

If so, this is important, since the only people who have a choice about learning a second language or not are native English speakers.

My unassisted thoughts on the topic below the fold.

Mainly, I think, I have gained a modest expansion of my vocabulary. There are some Italian words which are useful but can’t quite be translated into English.
For example Italian is very bad for machines (a car is simple called a machine) but it is pretty good for emotions. There are two Italian translations of “to love” — “amare” (romantic passionate love) and “volere bene” (brotherly love, more like “caring” best translated as “I care for you” If your girlfriend says “ti voglio bene” you better worry). Also there are some great snappy words. For example “on the contrary” is translated “anzi”.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with economist and linguistic genius Elena Bardasi. She was a graduate program which had interviews (in English) as part of the admissions process. She was admitted following and interview after which a colleague of mine said “I had the impression that she knew a lot but something was keeping her from getting it accross”. I later learned she had begun trying to learn English (in Italy) 6 months earlier. So at some point (after more than 6 months in Italy) I could talk in Italian but I could only talk about how pointlessly complicated Italian grammer is. I did concede that “anzi” was a great word and asked her if she could think of an English word that translated it.
She smiled and said “magari”. This is another great word. It means “if only” “I wish” “you wish” and can even translate into correct Italian the first word in the following incorrect sentence “Hopefully my girlfriend won’t say ‘ti voglio bene’”

OK so it’s not like I’m mica saying that I gained nothing from Italian. Anzi. Magari English would contain exact translations of every useful word in every human language.

There are other features of Italian which were striking to me, but which I value less. For example, while it impossible to know something false it is possible a sapere something false. “Sapevo” can mean “I believed with good reason” or “for all I know”. “Valorizzare” ambigously means “to make more valuable” (improve) or to “convince people that something is valuable” or even “to believe that something is valuable”. The truth and the impression are roughly interchangeable.

Also in Italian it is a truism that “ci sono tanti verita” (there are many truths) and , even if someone is clearly lying his or her version of the truth is called his or her truth.

But this is all vocabulary. I learned quite a few new words by learning Italian words which have no exact English translation..

There is also a very striking difference between Italian grammer and English grammer. From this, I think I have learned nothing useful (Italians who know me might argue that this is because I haven’t learned Italian grammer).

Of course living in Italy, I discovered how incredibly ignorant I was about not just Italy but Europe generally. Also my mind was very painfully stretched by living in a country with a very different range of ideologies. Still, if I didn’t need to use it every day and never read untranslated Italian poetry, I would consider most of the effort it took to (sortof) learn Italian wasted.

27 thoughts on “The Value of Learning a Second Language

  1. Interesting post, but I have to take issue with your contention that English spelling is “arbitrary.” It isn’t; it simply reflects the historical development of the language. Also, English is not a “combination of German and French;” it is a Germanic language, not a Romance language, and it has a lot of superimposed French vocabulary.

  2. Well NJ Sue, English spelling is arbitrary enough to be what is most difficult for me in that language. More so than French, which conserves older pronouncement, spelling and writing conventions too. Speaking of French, don’t be so dogmatic; even if English is classified as a Germanic language, it is heavily loaded with Romance words and phrases – whose source seems mainly French rather than (Church) Latin.

    Robert, I’m more inclined to agree with your wife. As my mother tongue (Hungarian) is not Indo-European, I notice more of it. For example, my mother tongue lacks grammatical sexes and the third-person he/she distinction, while in yours (or German or French) it is difficult to talk, or indeed think of someone without focus on gender identity. Another example, in science, it is important to distinguish ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ – but that became clear to me only after learning English, for in Hungarian they are not cleary separated different meanings of the same word.

  3. “What is the value of learning a second language aside from the obvious practical benefits”

    If you can go beyond basic Berlitz knowledge you’ll find how much of a nation’s culture/identity is reflected in its language. To learn a second language is to open yourself up mentally to another culture and to acknowledge the concept of diversity. Not to mention the social benefits and the historical ties between languages.

    Language is a window into the soul of a nation.

    In the end, however, it is up to the individual to decide what he/she gains from learning a second language. You can gain a lot or nothing at all.

  4. http://www.eagleforum.org/psr/2001/may01/psrmay01.shtml

    “The vision of our Constitution, and the immense individual liberty and economic opportunity that resulted, are inseparable from our language. Our view towards individual rights and privileges is shaped by the language in which those rights and privileges are defined. Professor Edward Sapir of the University of Chicago and later of Yale University wrote, “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.” The theory that people who speak different languages have a different world view is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.”

  5. “even if English is classified as a Germanic language, it is heavily loaded with Romance words and phrases – whose source seems mainly French rather than (Church) Latin.”

    It depends on the words. The base is Germanic, but there have been successive waves of word-importation into English. Greatly simplified they include Norse in the period 700-900, French in 1200-1400, Latin in 1500-1800. Since then neologism has tended to dominate over importation. There is a vague (and far from exceptionless) pattern of usage, whereby Germanic-derived words will ave a “common” register, French-derived words a “literary” register and Latin-derived words a “technical” register.

    As for the post’s main question, the main thing I’ve always got out of the languages I’ve learned (Latin, French, Russian, German) is being able to read the literature in the original. It ties in to what Guy said about language being the “window to the soul of a nation”. There are so many idioms that lose their force in tranlsation that reading any literary text in translation is a diminished experience. Things like the natural rhythm and structure of a language are important and expressive even in prose. I’d dearly love to learn a language where sentences are constructed through extensive inflection, like Turkish, to see what impact it has on literature.

  6. Dear Guy

    My native language is English. I live in Italy and teach in Italian at an Italian University. I was describing my personal experience. My mind has been expanded by dealing with another intellectual tradition, view of history and culture. However, the Italian language has not stretched my mind much.

    It does have its virtues. For example I use it every day. Also it is beautiful. But, while I have learned a lot from Italians, I haven’t learned much from Italian. My knowledge is a bit beyond Berlitz, although my Italian grammer is even worse than my English grammer which (see above) is worse than Bush’s

  7. Dear Robert,

    Obviously I did not know you were fluent in Italian, but I did not imply you were at Berlitz level either. Otherwise I would have said “your basic Berlitz level”. But I understand my post could have been interpreted that way, sorry about that.

    And, of course, no one can criticise or comment on anyone else’s personal experience.

  8. a nation’s culture/identity is reflected in its language

    Or, is it the other way around? Chickens and eggs?

    You grammar is worse than that of Bush.

    I think you mean “your” :)

    Besides, it’s not true. His spelling, perhaps.

  9. “a nation’s culture/identity is reflected in its language
    Or, is it the other way around? Chickens and eggs?”

    A nation’s language is reflected in its culture/identity?

    Language preceding culture/identity? Language as the origin of culture/identity?

    I am afraid you have to rephrase your question, Michael, my head is hurting :-) Or give me your own answer.

  10. “Language preceding culture/identity? Language as the origin of culture/identity?”

    Well DUH. Poems & literature & songs and such, you know :-)

    (Who was it, maybe the singer of The Cardigans, who said she won’t sing rock in her mother tongue because in any other language than English it sounds creepy?)

  11. Ginger Yellow: “There are so many idioms that lose their force in tranlsation that reading any literary text in translation is a diminished experience.”

    Indeed, and that’s not only true for books (where I can’t boast of much; but one I really appreciated reading in original is Salman Rushdie), but movies too.

  12. “Well DUH. Poems & literature & songs and such, you know :-)”

    Erm… What do you do with the concept of language as the ‘expression’ of an already existing culture/identity?

    Poems, literature, etc… are the codification and reinforcement of culture/identity and do indeed shape culture/identity to a great extent, but I doubt if they predated the ‘urge to express or communicate’. Poems, literature, etc. were not invented or conceived to create language, I think.

    My head is still hurting ;-)

  13. Wait, DoDo, I think I got YOUR point.

    Language is at the origin of a poem, a song, a book, right?

    The headache is a bit less, but I am still mulling over Michael’s chicken&egg.

  14. Ilya:
    You grammar is worse than that of Bush.

    Michael D:
    I think you mean ?your? :)

    I think perhaps Ilya was apostrophizing Grammar (with defiant ungrammaticality.) Although I’m not familar with that of Bush, I doubt it would give serious competition to classic thats like bhairavi or purvi.

  15. My head is still hurting

    I was simply musing and not trying to make any philosophical point.

    It seems clear, at least to the previous poster and to me , that strong cultural traits and ideas are often easier to express in the language commonly associated with them. Whether it is romantic love in Italian or engineering in German, language does reflect culture. However, the ability to think about some specific things more easily than other things because one’s language supports the concepts better surely must also, at least, reinforce the cultural identity.

    So, how greater a step is it to imagine that language actually shapes a culture? For example, if one culture is forced to speak another culture’s language, does the first culture lose it’s character and become the same as the second? The Welsh say the answer is: yes (and, give us our language back!)

    So, which comes first?

  16. Michael D., I was reading too much in it. I was thinking about the origins of language itself.

    ” if one culture is forced to speak another culture’s language, does the first culture lose it’s character and become the same as the second?”

    Yes and no. Yes, almost in Britanny (although there is now a revival of the Breton languages and culture). No in Flanders, Belgium (but it took a struggle of emancipation). No in Friesland, The Netherlands.

    In any case I believe your question can never be answered with a straightforward yes and no because a language is not fixed, it is fluid. Look at the history of English, how much did the influence of French change the identity and culture of the English? Or, try to define the identity and culture of the English.

    Your question is a very interesting one, but one would need to write complete tomes in order to even give a hint of an answer. It is simply too complex. Hence the headache :-)

  17. Guy, yes, I meant that the rythm, the available rhymes, the connotations of words that are intristic to a language channel what a poet or writer or composer of songs is likely to do. There’s obviously a two-way interaction, which is complex as you say.

  18. The first time you can make someone laugh in your second language, and at what you said, rather than how you said it, is a brilliant experience. To be able to discuss issues with people who share none of your cutural assumptions is enriching. But most of all, it dramatically increases the number of people with whom you can possibly be friends.

  19. “Indeed, and that’s not only true for books (where I can’t boast of much; but one I really appreciated reading in original is Salman Rushdie), but movies too.”

    Indeed, although a lot of that comes from the general crapness of subtitles. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been watching a French or Russian film, glanced at the subtitles, and thought to myself “That’s nothing like what she just said!”

  20. Of course, the biggest benefit of learning a language is allowing a greater understanding of people different to you in many ways. The ability just to read a newspaper in a foreign language opens up a whole new world of understanding to the person able to speak a second language – let alone actually communicating with another foreign person.

  21. “Indeed, although a lot of that comes from the general crapness of subtitles.”

    Thank you very much. I think I’ll have to post something on my profession one of these days :-)

  22. Subtitles are definitely a tricky thing to do well, given the constraints, and many films have pretty good ones. But a high proportion just leave out entire sentences for no reason, or give hopelessly inadequate translations. Similarly dubbing (these days) is usually done pretty well, but often is abysmal and really detracts from one’s enjoyment. With subtitles, though, the contrast between what’s said by the characters and the translation is laid bare.

  23. Ginger, have you done subtitling? I am not saying you are right or wrong, there are indeed horrible subtitles, I would just like to know where you are coming from.

    We, subtitlers, do not normally leave out entire sentences for no reason. But without concrete examples I cannot judge.

  24. I was reading too much in it. I was thinking about the origins of language itself.

    Guy, you got me thinking. There are tomes written about the relationship between communication and society. Particularly, the difference human and other animals. As language is simply a highly specific means of communication and culture is a specific societal trait, or collection thereof, maybe the link between language and culture does go back to the origin of language itself.

  25. I haven’t, no.

    To give an example, the subtitles for my copy of Das Boot (VHS, director’s cut, but not the full length TV version) leave a lot out. Also, I’ve noticed with a lot of films which involve alien scripts – Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, for example – text on screen or in shot is not always translated, even when it is important to the plot (or to give artists credit, for that matter) and when there is no dialogue to take precedence.