What good is it to learn another language?

In the comments to my internet withdrawal post (too much hassle to link as I’m writing this from the iphone), Mike suggests that learning another language is useless and merely a form of status display, something like conspicuous consumption.

I had always thought that the main uses for another language were a) reading things not in translation (Rilke is doubtless more beautiful, and Kant more comprehensible, in German), and talking to people who don’t speak your language, many of whom may have interesting things to say (and not just to have sex with them, though that is surely a worthy endeavor). I feel bad that I’ve not taken the time to get competent in foreign tongues.

But perhaps Mike is right, and in a world with lots of translations of stuff, it is rational for one to free-ride on the linguistic efforts of others? Or perhaps this is so for native English speakers, since the economic, cultural, and military hegemony of the U.S. effectively forces others to make it easy for us? (Every restaurant in Buenos Aires seems to have an English menu. But is it civilized to make use of power that way?) (See also Phillipe van Parjis’s recent work on language justice, if I can spell his name.)

Your thoughts?

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27 Responses to “What good is it to learn another language?”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    Basically, Mike is being anti-intellectual and so are you for entertaining his proposition. (He seems to be starting from an anti-intellectual position, really: people are “fascinated” with other languages.) For all of Mike’s evident disdain for SWPL, it takes a pretty strong form of whiteness to think that the \textit{only}, or at least only \textit{real} (regardless of the falsely conscious reasons) reason to learn a langauge would come down to status display.

    There are lots of translations of stuff, but some things will always be better in the original than in translation and to suggest otherwise is foolish. That doesn’t by itself give you a positive reason to learn another language (hey: maybe you just don’t care about Russian literature, or don’t think it’s worth the effort, or whatever). But it does mean that for those who \textit{are} interested in the literatures of Language X, there’s a reason to learn the language. (Not to mention you might discover an interest that you wouldn’t antecedently have thought of, if you put yourself in its path.) There are also many things that will never be translated for want of wide interest. It’s also nice to be able to communicate with people in the country you’re in, if you’re in another country; even if there are lots of people who speak your language (even if some of them \textit{want} to speak your language!) not everyone will, especially if you stray from a certain set of retailish/clubbish areas. (I also don’t want to make the \textit{presumption} that people will speak my language, and it is a presumption even if likely true; it speaks poorly of the presumer.)

    I would bet a good deal of money that not \textit{every} restaurant in BA has an English menu. Many in Greece do, in the cities; many in Helsinki did, in the more heavily touristed areas.

    Language n+1 can increase your facility in languages 1..n, an often underremarked advantage, and your stock of conceptual distinctions.

    Not to mention, languages are interesting!

  2. ben wolfson Says:

    s/\\textit{([^}]*}/<em>\1<\/em>/g, if you please.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, I am certainly not being anti-intellectual for entertaining Mike’s proposition. It is an intellectual virtue to subject even outlandish-seeming ideas to discussion and scrutiny rather than rejecting them out of hand.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with anything else you’ve said there (I’m trying to keep my own view out of the debate until others comment — call it an experiment).

    However, the issue isn’t as one-sided as you make it out to be. One must consider the opportunity cost. What could one be learning instead of, say, Polish (or latex, for that matter*)? This is particularly the case because language learning requires a huge initial investment. One must spend a lot of time in the beginning on things like basic grammar and vocabulary that yield very little marginal proficiency. Suppose one only has T amount of time for some indeterminate amount of learning, where T is just enough to get through, say, a year of undergraduate classes in a language. Probably not enough time to read Tolstoy, but enough to get the grammar and stuff down. Is that year really best spent learning Russian? Or might it be better spent learning, say, measure theory?

    (But I’m at least somewhat playing devil’s advocate.)

    —-
    * The one paper that I ever wrote in latex (because it was an economics paper with heavier than usual game theory, and I wanted to try the vaunted math formatting advantages) turned out to be a disaster, it took hours and hours to format even the smallest things, required a whole askmefi post to get some undocumented error straightened out, and I still had to attach a note of apology because bibtex murdered the formatting of the references. I shiver to think of what I could have been learning instead of that.

  4. Mike Says:

    At base, language is merely a skill one must learn to function in society. It has no inherent intellectual value to it.

    It’s no different from tying one’s shoes or eating with table wear.

    If you didn’t want to learn full-on dining manners would that anti-intellectual? If so, why?

    What is an “intellectual” subject?

    Is a Native English speaker’s reading Men’s Health in German more intellectual than his reading Plato in English? If so, why?

  5. Mike Says:

    reason to learn a langauge would come down to status display.

    For the most part, that’s it. Look at me. I speak other languages. I am so superior to you. It’s meant to exclude.

    If you’re a grad student in Continental philosophy or Proust, then yeah, learn another language. In that case, learning a language is a means to an intellectual end.

    Of course, we are question begging. What is an “intellectual” pursuit? Can we even define it? Unfortunately, my anti-intellectual self was just re-reading Philosophical Investigations in English rather than reading Playboy in German; so I’m thinking not.

    Still, it would seem to be more intellectual to learn Latin or Greek so one could read the great philosophers than to learn French so one could charm people at dinner parties.

    Whatever the case, I don’t view learning another language as a per se intellectual pursuit. It might be sometimes (think the grad student example).

    Often (most often?) learning another language is simply a way for rich people who had unlimited times because they didn’t have to work, to demonstrate to everyone parlor tricks and signal class (hello, piano lessons!). Again, conspicuous consumption.

    That anyone thinks learning another language is necessarily intellectual is living in false consciousness. The higher classes have simply tricked you into thinking they are intellectuals, when really they are empty vessels.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Mike, but what do you say to Ben’s point about the intrinsic interest of other languages, plus the insight that other languages give into ones own?

    (Wow, I’m such a moderator.)

  7. ben wolfson Says:

    For the most part, that’s it. Look at me. I speak other languages. I am so superior to you. It’s meant to exclude.

    I really have to wonder who you spend time with. I’ve never, ever seen someone talk about his or her languages like that.

  8. Mike Says:

    what do you say to Ben’s point about the intrinsic interest of other languages, plus the insight that other languages give into ones own?

    Those are legit points.

    Query whether this is why people learn foreign languages. I don’t think that’s the case. Unless you’re traveling, most who learn foreign language do so as a class signal.

    That’s be a fun empirical question, though….. if one could even figure out how to get the data, since people are often unaware why they do things like learn foreign languages.

  9. Mike Says:

    I’ve never, ever seen someone talk about his or her languages like that.

    Of course not. People are good at disguising their thoughts. Once you master body language, you see what people really think. It’s a sneer here, or a snicker there, or a cover the mouth, or a cover of the eyes. Subtle, split-second reactions that most miss; and that directly contradict what is said.

  10. belle lettre Says:

    For the aforementioned reasons by Ben, and also because it’s good to get out of the parochialism and provincialism that can accompany mono-lingualism. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dilettantish fascination for the purposes of appearing superficially worldly and cultured in a swipply way. Just as intellectual curiosity should urge you to seek out books from other countries, so should it encourage you to learn other languages in a more than casual way.

    Cultural poseurs sprinkle their daily speech with foreign bon mots to express their joie de vivre. Yes, that can be annoying and can come off as SWPL pretension. But really, one of the best experiences I’ve had is reading The Aeneid untranslated. I still like to buy bilingual editions, even in languages I’m not proficient in, just to compare the translations. Often there’s a nuance that you miss.

    And I really wish I could talk to more people in different languages. Not only to interact with people, which I consider to be a good in itself, but not being very good in any other language keeps me from doing certain types of research. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to interview people to do a study of low-wage working conditions and the mobilization of rights.

  11. Mike Says:

    Well, I think I was just epically pwned; so I’m calling it a night.

  12. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Like many things Mike says, it’s utterly absurd.

    (Mike, I quite like your blog persona and find your comments interesting and virtually always worth reading, but I fundamentally disagree with approximately 90% of what you write).

    Think about the indeterminacy of translation. The notion of an objective world of brute facts which we translate into a medium (language) to communicate about the same stuff is simply incoherent, as generations of linguists, philosophers of language, and Wittgenstein himself have argued compellingly. Language is a conceptual scheme, which means that its usage literally creates the world for the utterer and his/her linguistic community. It is a form of life; indeed, it is THE form of life.

    This is why something, so to speak, is always lost in translation. It doesn’t matter how much vocabulary one has; there are concepts, ways of seeing the world in one language that simply cannot be adequately captured without significant loss of complexity and meaning, no matter how many words one possesses.

    I have lots of direct experience with this in terms of Japanese. There are Japanese ways ov understanding the world that poorly translate into English. and it’s not because my wife does not speak perfect English; indeed, you would never know she is not a native speaker. She got a ph.D at an american university, writing in english, fer god’s sake.

    But some Japanese ways of conceiving the world are either untranslatable, or seriously undertranslatable.

    The same holds true for trying to read Kafka in English, or any other of countless examples. Languages are the primary means we build our local social worlds; it is no accident that anthropologists tend to characterize ethnic groups on the basis of language as a primary criterion. Learning other languages gives one a window into this alternate conceptual scheme; it helps one translate those experiences and ways of understanding that are commensurable.

    This is in addition to Ben’s points, which I generally agree with. Mike seems to be arguing against a total straw man here, namely, those actors who learn a language for the express purpose of being perceived as well-rounded. This is probably a silly reason in and of itself, but with so many excellent reasons for learning other languages, focusing on this one is absurd.

    My wife and her entire family is Japanese. We visit Japan almost every year. I speak only bits and pieces of Japanese. Learning the language would be incredibly pragmatic and meaningful for me, would help me understand her and her family in much deeper ways, etc.

    Learning a language is almost by definition a virtuous practice, even if there are some reasons for doing so which lack virtue.

  13. Jeff Albert Says:

    A point being missed here, is the idea that different languages produce different thinking. Huge clues as to how we see our worlds are contained in our languages. Whether or not the Inuits really do have 100 words for snow, the idea that our language forms our world view at the most basic level is valid. Learning and living in another language will teach us to see the world from a different perspective.

    That being said, I only speak one language, because I don’t want to be seen as elitist.

  14. Jeff Albert Says:

    reply 12 wasn’t there when I started writing…

  15. Paul Gowder Says:

    I have the urge to defend Mike (even though I ultimately agree with Ben et. al.) just because this is becoming a lopsided pile-on, and lopsided pile-ons rarely lead to wisdom. In that vein, a few further thoughts:

    - Is the sapir-whorf hypothesis true?

    - What about opportunity costs, anyway? Lots of things are valuable: it might be valuable to me to know how to weave baskets (underwater, even); the question is how valuable it is relative to the cost.

  16. Mike Says:

    Like many things Mike says, it’s utterly absurd.

    Well, someone has to get the party started.

    I don’t feel piled on at all, mostly because I do not become emotionally attached to ideas; and they are blog comments made off the top of my head – not defending a thesis here. Plus, I think Belle’s and Daniel’s posts added the necessary nuance. Ben (or “ben”) and I were too coarse.

    Still, I stand by my statements that:
    1) Learning a foreign language is not an inherently intellectual endeavor.
    2) Time is scarce, so there is nothing wrong with not learning another language. IOW, it’s not inherently bad or a sign of an incomplete education to speak on one language.
    3) While I retreat from my statement that it’s totally frivolous, I still contend that for many, it absolutely was conspicuous consumption.

  17. ben wolfson Says:

    Of course not. People are good at disguising their thoughts. Once you master body language,

    your insecurities have free reign to make up all sorts of imagined slights?

  18. ben wolfson Says:

    Free rein. Shit.

  19. Mike Says:

    your insecurities have free reign to make up all sorts of imagined slights?

    I recognize the irony in what I’m about to say. But this is a conversation, so I’ll go ahead and say that I’m not insecure. (Really. I’m not. Really!)

    So……… It’s not sour grapes, because I could learn any foreign language I wanted to; and I could manipulate my way into any class I wanted to. And it’s not insecurity, because I really don’t GAF.

    So what are we left with……… ???

    …..a bomb-ass song and some enlightenment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igt-jW4e8ts

    “Universal truth is not measured in mass appeal
    This is the last time that I kneel and pray to the sky
    Cause almost everything that I was always ever told was a lie

    Indeed.

  20. Anna Says:

    I think this one is a no-brainer. Can’t go wrong with learning another language. Somehow something always gets lost in translation. I agree with your Rilke example. Or for that matter, Neruda. (a friend who is fluent in Spanish always tells me that the translations fail to convey the whole poignancy of his poetry) And nothing beats reading al-jazeera news in Arabic. Language gives you a unique and unmediated glimpse into another world.

  21. ben wolfson Says:

    Not only is learning a language not an intellectual endeavor, it’s not one that depends on smarts at all*, so mike’s claim (in the other thread) that he’s “more than smart enough to learn a foreign language” doesn’t really make sense. Lots of quite smart people have a lot of trouble learning languages, and indeed some of them have more trouble with some languages than others (my uncle, no fool, absolutely failed at learning Russian, for instance).

    However, the issue isn’t as one-sided as you make it out to be. One must consider the opportunity cost. What could one be learning instead of, say, Polish…?

    I don’t think I ever denied anything like that, nor do I think I was being any more one-sided than was necessary to respond to the initial challenge. Dithering in response to a question isn’t always virtue, even when there are things to be said on both sides.

    * you know what I mean.

    As for S-W (which is not the same thing as the indeterminacy of translation, which is itself not exactly as uncontroversial as Daniel claims, and I’d like to know where you find the argument in W.), Paul, talk to Lera Boroditsky. She’s in the, I believe, Psych department.

  22. ben wolfson Says:

    Let me append, and plenty of seemingly not that smart people are multilingual. I would also like to know what is being consumed so conspicuously by learning a language, first in that I don’t see where it’s conspicuous, and second, if you’re in college (or high school! or middle school, even!!) and there’s a language program/requirement, well … why not?

    I guess I just don’t know who the “most” who learn foreign languages as a class signal are. (Do they also learn the pianoforte?) (And, of course, that very assumption is quite enwhiteled: immigrants learn english!) I admit that I do not travel in the upperest of crusts, but I’ve never encountered anyone like that.

  23. ben wolfson Says:

    Often (most often?) learning another language is simply a way for rich people who had unlimited times because they didn’t have to work, to demonstrate to everyone parlor tricks and signal class (hello, piano lessons!)

    I guess they do learn the pianoforte! I hadn’t seen that earlier. Mike, you are a creature from another planet.

    I also wonder who you think it was who maintained that reading Playboy in German qualified as intellectual.

  24. homais Says:

    The conversation seems to have petered out already, so I’ll avoid dead horse flogging. Instead, I’ll point out one advantage to learning languages that nobody else seems to have mentioned (unless I missed it):

    Not everything gets translated.

    I’ve had a lot of eye opening moments reading stuff that just don’t exist in English and probably never will. It’s not just that meaning gets lost in translation (though it does). It’s that whole swathes of stuff never make it into translation and you get sampling bias on a massive scale.

    This doesn’t dodge your question about opportunity costs: I’m not sure if getting a really accurate picture of the Moldovan literary and political scene is worth learning several tricky languages, but for someplace you care about, there’s a lot of utility to having access to things that mono-lingual people usually don’t know about the existence of.

  25. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    indeterminacy of translation, which is itself not exactly as uncontroversial as Daniel claims</i.

    I neither stated nor implied that it was uncontroversial. What I implied was uncontroversial was the idea that language is a conceptual scheme through which the world is constructed.

    and I’d like to know where you find the argument in W.)

    You don’t expressly find indeterminacy of translation, but then again about 75% of what W. scholars argue about is whether he expressly or implicitly said X.

    I certainly think the idea of language as a form of life, as a practice, and as a conceptual scheme is Wittgensteinian. If that is not in the PI, then nothing of any substance is.

  26. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Sorry for the hanging tag.

  27. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    (in case I was unclear, I absolutely think W. in the PI can be utilized in support of the indeterminacy of translation. Kripke wrote an entire book about it. Admittedly, the book is extremely controversial, but I think the idea is plausible, at least. [FYI, I also think the vast majority of Kripke's critics are either wrong or totally misconstrue him, but that is a subject for another time and place.] Crispin Wright talks about it as well, and Meredith Williams discussed Quine’s argument in context of W as well.

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