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.