Michael Hacker
Michael Hacker
Thursday, July 14, 2011

I would like to take this opportunity to talk about why I think my fellow Americans should invest some time learning a second language.  But first, an old joke:

 What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

 “Bilingual.”

 What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

“American.”

As lame as this joke may be, it does reflect a very real perception of Americans.  

Europeans often speak two or more languages, while Americans are looked down upon because we speak only one. There are, of course, obvious reasons for this. It would be easy to run into five or more different languages in a single week spent traveling around Europe. This obviously isn’t the case in America, but that doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) apply ourselves to the study of foreign languages.

Many countries have made English-language education compulsory. In Japan, for example, students are required to study English for six years through junior high and high school. Yet, for some reason, the very suggestion that similar mandatory foreign-language-education programs would be a good thing for the United States quickly gives rise to what I can only describe as a sort of misplaced monolinguistic nationalist fury.

Before I go any further, I’d like to be clear that what I’m suggesting is not that we should all run out and learn Spanish for the various reasons that might be suggested daily in the news media and pop culture.  While Spanish would certainly seem to be a logical choice (and it is for various cultural and socioeconomic reasons), I don’t want to limit the discussion to any one language in particular.  I’m talking about the benefits of language learning in general.

The very topic of foreign languages in America can certainly be an emotional one.  People often rail against having to press “1” for English on automated phone systems.  But we’re not alone. In Québec, French nationalists déteste the use of English on street signs.  To people everywhere, whether they be from different countries or different streets in the same city, language is identity.  And often, to suggest to them that they should (or must) learn another language, is akin to stripping them of that very identity.

This commentary isn’t about why your language is bad and why you should learn other, more prestigious languages.  It isn’t about why you should learn a language so much as it is about why I think you should want to.

I’m assuming that you’ve all heard many reasons for why learning to speak, read and understand a foreign language is a good thing: sound smart, get into a good college, impress the opposite sex, get around in foreign countries. ... These tried and true reasons are all valid to an extent.  I want to talk about some other reasons you may not be aware of.

For instance, did you know that research suggests that studying other languages can actually improve your mental health?  According to evidence uncovered by Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist and researcher at York University in Toronto, Ontario, learning to speak even one other language can help to push back the effects of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by a much longer period than can be achieved through the use of any drug currently on the market.

In her study of 450 Alzheimer’s patients, half bilingual, half monolingual, Dr. Bialystok found that the bilingual patients were diagnosed between four and five years later than the monolingual patients.  Note that while bilingualism is not seen as a cure for Alzheimer’s, it does appear to buffer the onset of the disease.

In other research performed by University of British Columbia psychologist Janet Werker, it was found that babies who are exposed to multiple languages from birth appear to develop improved attention spans.  Over the years, some people have expressed fears that exposing a child to multiple languages might confuse them, but research seems to suggest otherwise. I have personally been around toddlers who spoke as many as three languages natively; never did they confuse one language for another, nor did they speak the wrong language in the wrong context.

If you’re neither a parent nor have any vested interest in child development, how does the possibility of improving your understanding of your own native language sound?  Learning a language different from your own can certainly help in this area.

I often joke that I thought I was good at French until I learned Russian and thought I was good at Russian until I learned Japanese.  But the real punchline is that I didn’t really start to understand the grammar of my own native English until I studied other languages.

I would argue that you don’t really know what makes your own language tick until you’ve studied a language that operates under a set of different grammatical rules.  To those already familiar with the Russian language, my feelings are likely not foreign to you, as Russian grammar is much more strict than that of Modern English.  For those of you without exposure to Russian, I’ll try to briefly explain what I mean.

With a few exceptions, Modern English is generally a non-inflectional language.  (Old English, on the other hand, was highly inflectional.)  Inflection basically means that a word’s ending must change in order to express what part of speech it belongs to.  

I say “generally,” because we do still have a few inflections remaining in English in the form of pronouns.  We use one form of a pronoun when the word is a subject (e.g. I, he, she, they, we), a different form when it is the object of a verb or preposition (e.g. me, him, her, them, us), and yet another form when expressing possession (e.g. my, his, her, their, our).  Then there’s the dreaded “who” versus “whom” conundrum.  (Although I suspect that some prescriptive grammarians out there may start to twitch when they read this, “whom” is, as Miracle Max would say, “mostly dead” in Modern English.)

Russian, however, is still quite inflectional and demands that more attention be paid to certain aspects of grammar than is required by Modern English. There are different word endings for masculine, feminine and neuter words. Singular words also have different endings from plurals, and adjectives must also change to reflect their relationship with the gender, part of speech and number of the words they are modifying.

When one factors in three genders, plurals, and all the different cases, it is easy to see how things can become very complex very quickly.  This in-depth study of Russian grammar really helped me to understand aspects of grammar that had never occurred to me in the course of speaking my native language.

If getting lost in a mire of foreign grammar isn’t your thing, how does improving the perception of yourself, your country and your culture in the eyes of the world strike you?

One thing that I learned early on during my life in Japan was that, regardless of whether I liked it or not, I had become an representative of my country, my fellow Americans, our national spirit, culture and language to the people of Japan.  Wherever I went, whomever I met, whatever I said and however I acted, the Japanese saw me as “America.”  I did not take this responsibility lightly, and throughout my years in Japan, I tried to do my utmost to leave the best possible impression of America and Americans in the minds of the Japanese I met.  (Rest assured, I failed plenty at this.)

You may never travel to or live in a foreign country.  But with the ubiquity of the Internet, the entire world now lives in your computer, smartphone or iPad.  Using social-media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and various Instant Messengers, we now have the opportunity to effortlessly interact with people from other nations, cultures and languages in a way that was not possible for most people even a decade ago.  Even if you, yourself, go nowhere, your words can go everywhere.

While a cursory glance at the mass media or the Internet might give one reason to presume that English is the de facto lingua franca of the world, this isn’t actually the case.  According to Ethnologue, there are currently 328 million native English speakers and 329 million Spanish speakers.  Yet, if you combine the total number of speakers of both languages, you will still fall short of the 845 million speakers of the Mandarin dialect of Chinese alone.  (In all, Chinese dialects comprise about 1.2 billion speakers, many of whom don’t speak any English at all.)

There is no better way I know of to expand one’s horizons than to learn enough of a foreign language to reach out and strike up friendships with people very different from ourselves.  You don’t have to be fluent enough to talk about politics, philosophy or zero-gravity experiments aboard the space shuttle.  Acquiring the ability to make friends alone is a good start and, I think, might be the one of the single best reasons to learn a language.  The very future of our species depends on communication.

But let’s say that these lofty ambassadorial goals neither appeal nor apply to you.  Let’s talk about your wallet.

In this economy, employment is a hot topic.  Depending on where you are in the U.S., you may notice that employers are often looking for bilingual employees.  International companies look for people who can speak both the “home” language as well as English.  Jobs teaching English abroad as part of programs like JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) are also popular, especially among new college graduates and provide an excellent opportunity to see the world, earn a bit of money, make new friends and learn new languages.

Skills in languages critical to national security are also highly sought by federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and many others. If you’re interested in military service and have a penchant for languages, you may be able to qualify for intensive language training at the Defense Language Institute.  Keep in mind, however, that the needs of the government will always take precedence over your desires to learn a particular language.

Let’s assume at this point that I’ve convinced you.  What language should you learn?

I can’t really answer this question for you, but I can suggest some things that might help you decide.  First, where do your interests lie?  If you are into martial arts, you might want to study Japanese, Chinese or Korean.  Is your employer a subsidiary of a foreign-owned company?  You might want to learn their language.  Have you always wanted to visit a particular country?  Are you interested in a particular religion practiced in another part of the world?  If you’re interested in the “power” languages, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Pashto and Urdu are currently among the big ones.  Whatever your language of choice, tailoring your language studies to fit something you are passionate about will make the process all the more enjoyable.  

If you are more prone to base your choice on what languages are “easy” for English speakers to learn, you might look at Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish or Swedish. Because these languages share a common a linguistic ancestry with English and have similar writing systems and grammar, these languages may have a more gentle learning curve.

Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, on the other hand, are generally thought of as more “difficult” for native English speakers to learn due to their alien writing systems. Don’t let that stop you.  

The Japanese writing system may appear complex, but its grammar is actually relatively simple when compared to that of English.  Unlike the oft-painful irregular verbs of French, for instance, Japanese verbs don’t conjugate at all.  I go, you go, he go, she go, they go, we all go. ... The verb ending doesn’t change to reflect person.  Remember that each language has its tradeoffs, so don’t let preconceived notions of difficulty dissuade you.  Spanish may be “easy” for English speakers, but it isn’t necessarily so for native Chinese speakers.

Even Arabic, which can seem vastly different from English, shares many cognates.  In fact, the common English words algebra, alcohol, candy, chemistry, coffee, giraffe, jar, lime, loofah, magazine, monsoon, mummy, orange, Sahara (desert), tariff and zero actually come from Arabic roots.  Look for the similarities, not just the differences.

Many simple words that derive from the babbling sounds made by babies are also very similar across languages.  Abba (Aramaic), dada (English), baba (Arabic), bàba (Chinese), appa (Korean), and papa (French) are almost universal.  So are Amá (Navajo), māma (Chinese), mama (Swahili and English) and umma (Korean).

Beware, however, of false cognates (i.e. words that sound similar but have different roots or meanings), for they can deceive you.  Many exist among the Indo-European languages.  As a bit of trivia, the word for “dog” in the Australian Aboriginal language Mbabaram happens to be “dog.”  This is purely coincidental, and the two words appear to have no demonstrable connection.  They just happen to mean the same thing.

Once you’ve decided which language you’d like to learn, you might wonder how to get started.  In my experience, there are a few factors that are absolutely vital in learning a new language:

1.  Know Thyself. You need to understand what your motivation is for learning the language.  Does it tie into a hobby or passion?  Is it a heritage language (i.e. was it spoken by your parents or grandparents)?  Is it spoken in a country that you plan to vacation in?  Is it for a job?  Understanding your motivation will be of vital help in getting you through any rough patches along the way.

2.  Context is King.  Despite what your high school or college language professors may have suggested, memorizing vocabulary lists and tables of arcane verb conjugations is relatively pointless.  You must learn the real language as it is used by real speakers in real situations.  Cramming countless unconnected words into your brain is of very little use to a beginning language learner.  Did you know that normal, everyday conversation in English comprises only about 1,500 to 2,000 words?  It doesn’t take a lot of words to learn to speak. It just takes the right ones.

3.  Immerse Yourself.  Listen to music in the target language.  Subscribe to podcasts.  Watching TV shows and movies is especially useful as you also have visual contextual clues that, coupled with the language itself, will help to program connections into your brain.  Don’t worry about understanding everything.  Don’t worry about understanding anything.  Just let it soak in.  It worked well for me with Japanese.

4.  Synergize Input.  This may sound a bit metaphysical, but I try to follow a holistic approach to learning everything, languages included.  While software like Rosetta Stone, books, CDs and teachers are all valuable tools, they are just tools.  It is how you use these tools together that is important.

Let’s say I want to learn the word for “apple” in a language.  First, I’m going to listen to a native speaker say the word.  Then I’m going to say it.  When I say the word, I not only hear it again, I also feel both the vibrations in my jaw and the movements of my speech muscles.  I write the word and say it aloud.  When I write it, I feel the movements of my arm and hand muscles.  I also see the word as I’m writing it.  If possible, I will even eat an apple while I’m doing all of this.  The point I’m trying to make is that you want to involve as much of every part of your being as possible in the process in order to take the word from being just a memorized equivalent to “apple” to having it represent the actual, physical thing, shape, color, flavor and all.

5.  Relax.  Acquiring a new language is not a contest.  There are no tests.  There are no vocabulary lists to memorize, no irregular-verb-conjugation tables to tattoo onto the insides of your eyelids, no strict teacher to punish you for making mistakes.  In fact, mistakes are not only perfectly fine, they are actually mandatory.  If you’re a “perfection or nothing” sort of person, you’re either going to be miserable for a long time or you’re going to quit.

Picking up a new language should be enjoyable.  In fact, I recommend you not think of it as “learning” at all.  Just have fun and experience it.  Calming your emotions and lowering your anxiety levels is vital for learning anything new.  Children pick up languages effortlessly because they don’t realize they’re learning.  Until an adult admonishes them for making “mistakes,” they don’t realize that mistakes are “bad.”  

They don’t care that they haven’t mastered the advanced grammatical gymnastics.  They simply use what they do know to communicate.  They don’t care about sounding “stupid.”  In time, children fill in the blanks and eventually speak the language natively.

Perhaps you’re finding yourself inspired to learn a new language or maybe dust off one that you studied in high school or college.  What are you waiting for?  Look around for speakers of your target language who might be willing to help.  If none are available near you, try making friends online through language exchanges like LiveMocha.com.  Research what software, books, and CDs are available for your language.  If your lifestyle allows, take a vacation in or move to a country where the language is spoken.  

But most importantly, jump in with both feet and leave your life preserver behind.  The water is fine.

Editor’s Note: Michael Hacker is a 1987 graduate of Carroll High School and a U.S. Air Force veteran.   After graduating with honors in Russian from the prestigious Defense Language Institute, Michael moved to Japan, where he spent the next 10 years learning to eat, sleep, sweat and dream in Japanese.  Michael is currently a graduate student in the field of applied linguistics at Arizona State University, where he continues to pursue his interests in Japanese, Second Language Acquisition, Discourse Analysis and other languages.  Michael can be reached via his website SilentSchwa.com, where he occasionally writes about language.