Why Bother with Learning Languages?

How do you know things? How do you grow from being an incontinent infant to a semi-capable adult? There are two main elements of growth within a person. The first is their physical capability. Infants are useless and weak – adults have to do absolutely everything for them. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be self-sufficient. Growth, then, looks like a casual attainment of physical abilities. The second element of growth in humans is related to intelligence. Infants, beyond not being able to do anything, are also seemingly blank and stupid. They just don’t know anything. An adult, on the other hand, knows quite a lot. So growth also looks like a general attainment of common human knowledge.

That intellectual growth can come from two main places, itself. One of the basic sources of intellectual growth comes from a human’s sensory observations of the world. As children observe visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory patterns, they begin to form from these observations certain abstractions that are what we call information and knowledge. They learn to further gauge their senses towards inter-human interaction and experience emotions. The second source of intellectual growth is language. At first, children get a lot of input from their language-full surroundings. Family and family friends, school, all people around them speak to them and act using language in front of them. By observing and comprehending all this language input, children begin to form connections between words and abstractions. They connect words to abstractions they already understood or use the language to understand new abstractions. They take what they have already learned and combine it with other things they know, or divide it into smaller components. Language helps facilitate the intellectual growth beyond the directly observable.

While composition and division of abstractions is not limited to language itself, it certainly is accelerated by it. Instead of using worldly objects to pull out abstractions, words of language can pull out the abstractions instead, meaning that direct worldly observation is not necessary to gather abstractions.

When children go to school, they are constantly being fed language or worldly observation to compose and divide these abstractions and grow their knowledge. It is a beautiful thing. Classic liberal education, the standard upon which our universities and general schools are built, has a primary goal of giving individuals the ability to compose and divide with ease and to have a wide breadth of knowledge. The more abstract the composition and division goes, the more reliant one is on language to achieve it. This education, though, is not meant just for school aged children. Cicero once said that after a man’s worldly needs are met, the first thing he thirsts for is knowledge. Not knowledge for some worldly purpose, but knowledge for it’s own sake. We want to know simply to know. The more adept we are at language, the more we are able to know and able to come to know.

Great, so I have argued for a general liberal education and for knowing language better, but what about a second language, or even a third or fourth? Why invest in the effort to learn other languages?

Click bait articles and a scientifically minded society wants you to think of a useful reason to learn another language.

You’ll get a higher paying job.

What, by fifty cents?

Your brain functions, like processing and memory, will improve.

More significantly through language learning than through doing other thinking-heavy tasks?

You’ll travel abroad with more ease.

So learning a language belongs only to wealthier people like traveling does? Google translate couldn’t help you get around just as easily?

Anytime someone introduces one of these reasons, a pragmatic reason, a useful reason, they stake the whole process of language learning on a purpose, with a use. When that benefit falls through (as it is most likely to do) what happens then? Likely you give up on learning the language.

Instead, one should learn a language for the sake of learning that language. One language is an individual and specific way of looking at reality. Another language offers a slightly different perspective, and even more languages offer that many more perspectives. It educates the intellect and fosters individual growth in a unique and valuable way, in a way that no other education can do.

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