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Monday, 25 May 2015

Why you should learn a language

If I could be granted a superpower, it would be to speak and understand every language. Screw flying, invisibility or mind reading - I want to be an omniglot.

Languages at school were dreadfully dull, replete with complicated grammar and verb tables. I don't think it's surprising that language learning is in decline in British schools, especially since languages are no longer compulsory at GCSE (14-16) level. 

Besides, English is the global lingua franca. Native English speakers don't have the incentive that others do to learn another language - why should we when our own language is so omnipresent? English-language music and TV can be heard and watched worldwide, giving non-native speakers a more immersive experience of English.

The English language is a rich tapestry with threads of so many other languages woven through it. English has some beautiful words (codswallop, discombobulated, effervescent, brisk, opulent, viridian...) and its idiosyncrasies must be mind-boggling to its learners (to, too and two; there, their and the're... although I know several native speakers who still don't know the difference between those. Is it bad to block people on Facebook because they can't spell? Probably.) 

I think that learning another language is worthwhile. Here are my reasons:

To travel

Sure, most people do speak English, and it's certainly possible to travel almost anywhere with it. But even if 'I would like a cup of coffee' or 'where is the toilet?' is widely understood, you're still limited - you can't pronounce anything, you can't understand a menu and don't know whether you've accidentally bought horse meat at the supermarket (it's alright mum, we all thought it was beef!) 

To meet new people

Isn't it a common fantasy to have a tall dark latin lover? Why wait? Be your own sexy latin lover. Then once you meet said man or woman you can travel to their home country, charm their parents in their mother tongue, and have beautiful bilingual babies. Or is that bit not part of the fantasy? 

To learn more about your own language

This is particularly true of English, with all its disparate etymologies. I have actually learnt more about English through learning other languages than I did through English classes, or indeed from speaking it for 25 years! For anyone interested in etymology, particularly English etymology, a Germanic language is very useful, as is Greek (and Latin and ancient Greek, if dead languages float your boat.) We have so many loan words and there are a lot of similarities, and it's fun to connect the dots.

Because it's fun

Getting your lips around the different sounds, finding squiggly lines becoming letters and words, and being able to recognise new words is great fun. It feels like you're really learning, a feeling that I find occurs less and less often in adulthood. You know how when children learn new words they like to say them over and over again, getting a feel for them and welcoming them into their vocabulary? It's like that, with the notable exception that if you swear in your new language, no one looks aghast and threatens to call child services. 

To become more interesting

Or so I think. Ever used the snazzy adopted German words 'zeitgeist' or 'weltschmerz' without knowing what you actually meant? In English, 'zeitgeist' means 'the spirit of the age' but translates literally into 'time ghost', and weltschmerz', 'a feeling of melancholy', translates literally into 'world pain'. Knowing the literal meaning of a word gives it more depth and gives a deeper understanding of the mechanics of the language. One of my favourite words, 'leistungsfähigkeit', is a beautiful compound noun that means 'efficiency' and translates literally as 'performance ability'. Isn't that lovely?

The downside to this is that I'm always telling everyone that they're pronouncing 'bruschetta' wrong and I think they're getting fed up with me. 

To increase your brain power

Put simply, learning a language is great for your brain. Studies show that it improves memory, the ability to multitask, and leads to increased attention; it also keeps you young by staving off Alzheimer's disease. Ausgezeichnet!

Next I'll post a list of my favourite language-learning resources. Hopefully I've whetted your appetites! See you next time!