The Importance of a Second Language

Having spent my school years in international schools I seem to take it for granted that everyone speaks more than one language. In fact I was always slightly ashamed that I only know two languages well and can just about get by in Spanish and French. (What i call cut and paste knowledge) Today as I am doing just that, cutting and pasting French and Spanish translations onto web pages, I realize that meager though my knowledge may be, I can always look at the text and guess what each word means. When I took French and Spanish I had no dreams of ever living in countries where I would need to converse in either, but throughout my working life, these skills have come in handy more times than I can count. More than just the obvious ways that knowing a second or third language comes in handy, I believe that it changes the way you think and adapt to cultures and the people in your life.


Cartoon taken from Borg Blog

Its a running global joke that Americans only speak English. This seems to say that Americans view themselves as the ‘kings’ of the world and everyone else needs to learn English to communicate with them. I am sure we have all witnessed the loud American tourist shouting at a foreigner abroad. (Note: increasing volume does not necessarily increase comprehension)

Learning another language gives insight into what that particular culture deems important ie. class structure/ respect for elders, formal vs informal, even how a language uses pronouns tells us something. It forces us to restructure our ideas and that is always a good thing.

Of course this goes both ways. Wherever you live, you should ‘do as the Romans do’ … if you live in the US, you should learn English. That’s a basic fact of life. There’s a big debate about immigrants and language…but i think that’s a whole other post.


7 responses to “The Importance of a Second Language

  1. ya I agree on that… sometimes it seems kinda unfair how we all gotta learn English… so English speaking people and most of the world would understand us… and than you meet some Americans who don’t bother to learn any other language… I guess everyone has it’s choice… I think languages are very important…it’s such a great feeling when you can visit a country and speak a language of that country… it gives you more options and it’s a great way to really get to know someone else’s culture…;)

  2. I speak a couple of language well and a couple of others well enough to get by. And yet I understand and appreciate the importance — throughout history, not just now — of the existence of a “lingua franca,” a language that just about everyone speaks, at least a little. When conferences are held that involve people from dozens of different backgrounds, no one will know the languages of most of the people there — but most of them will speak English, so they are able to communicate.

    As for Americans, remember that you can go thousands of miles without running into someone who speaks another language. It’s not as easy as it is in Europe, for example, where a border is never more than a few hundred miles away and you probably get TV and radio in half a dozen language.

    And really, two languages is just not that much of a step up from one, when you live on a planet that has thousands of languages and dialects. The best hope of international communication is to have a language of diplomacy. Once, it was Greek. Then Latin. Then French. Today, it’s English. A lot of people have scrambled for years to come up with an artificial universal language (such as Esperanto), but English is just so handy. Because even knowing three or four languages, if you really like to travel, that only represents a few countries — unless one of the languages you speak is English. In India, my French, German, and Spanish were of no use to me. Same in China. Same in Indonesia. But English worked everywhere.

    Sure, it’s great to visit a country and be able to speak the language. And I encourage everyone to learn as many languages as possible. It doesn’t just help you speak, it helps you think. (The Greek word “logos,” which means “word,” is the root of the English word “logic.) But it’s also great to have a language that you can use in all the countries where they don’t speak one of the languages you know.

  3. I think both comments are well thought out.

    I also think language is a door to a new culture therefore, more attempt you have in foreign language, more open minded you become toward something foreign.

    Anyway, when I read this sentence,

    ‘…I am sure we have all witnessed the loud American tourist shouting at a foreigner abroad. (Note: increasing volume does not necessarily increase comprehension)’

    I had to laugh since I’ve witness them frequently in asia & europe. To be fair, I’ve seen many non-american travellers done that, too. I’m sure it’s out of a frustration but, I thought it was rude when a drunken American tourist cursing out in English loud at a bar for no good reason at the Narita airport or just yelling in English as if the citizens of foreign countries are too dumb not to be able to understand English.

    I remember keep asking to tone down the voice volume to my brother’s friend who was visiting Korea.(I did like him and they had a great time in Korea btw.) He also asked to translate every single word he heard in the street which none of us could since we were not a hired interpters. Anyway, it’s frustrating not being able to understand every noise you hear in foreign countries but, it also gives an opportunity to learn body language and observing people’s hidden expression rather than language itself.

    When I walked around in Barcelona without understanding nor speaking any Spanish(they hardly spoke English) in 2000, I really enjoyed it and was able to observe behavior intensely.

  4. the best part of not knowing what’s being said, is that i can go off into my own little world. there’s something great about a solipsistic existence. and speaking only one language — well, that’s almost like that. americans speak one language (aside from those latins, those indians, and those Hawaiians), and maybe that’s a good thing.

  5. I agree. I’d like to learn Spanish, because there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this area. So much so that it’s a big plus to have it on one’s resume here…it may get to a point where it’s a absolute must. After learning Spanish, I’d like to learn French (have always loved that language). I just never seem to have the time to get started, and I’m still researching for the best and most cost/time efficient way to learn other languages.

  6. Yes, having an additional cultural understanding, if not many more cultural perspectives is very important in today’s globalized & interconnected world, but for us who are linguistically challenged, I can’t always say it helps. I mean, I’d love to have a 2nd or 3rd language in my repertoire, but it’s tough. I’ve tried for the past 36 years off and on & actually am living in the country I’d love to learn the language, but fail to…despite the 130 IQ, I just can’t. I am trying for my boys’ sakes though to raise them bi-culturally for their future. I admire and think people who have many cultural understandings are usually “better people” in many ways. However, it doesn’t discount us who are challenged with languages. 😉

    Good post…


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