Why do I need to learn another language?

Why do I need to learn another language?

What’s the difference between a second language and a foreign language?

A foreign language is one you learn when you are not in that language’s country. If you are studying Russian while in Brazil, you are learning a foreign language. If you are a non-Russian studying Russian while in Russia, you are learning a second language.  The process may be different; the speed with which you learn might be different; but you are still acquiring a new language and that’s what’s important.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” (Charlemagne)

To have another language also opens up our eyes to the way other people perceive the world. So often it is vastly different from the way we see things. It’s often quoted that the Inuit have hundreds of terms for “snow”. The truth is they have about 50. However, the indigenous people in the Arctic Circle, the Sami, do have 100s of words for the different types of snow. In Hebrew there’s a different word for almost each type of gathering of agricultural crops. In Guugu Yimithirr (spoken by an indigenous group in Queensland, Australia) there are no words for “right” or “left” or even “in front of”. Instead, the cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) are used for giving directions – even inside a building! In Namibia there’s a tribe that differentiate only between dark colors, greens and blues, white, and certain shades of brown and red and in  Piraha there are no simple words for color at all.

Are these reflections of what was (and possibly is) important in the everyday life of these people. Most likely. Do these nuances influence the way these different peoples view the world around them? Almost certainly. If, when visiting the Arctic Circle you made mention of the “snow”, you would likely seem quite ignorant of the world around you if you didn’t know that the word vahtsa means “one or two inches of new snow on top of old snow” or that åppås refers to “virgin snow that has not been walked on.” And if you were trying to sell a selection of products in different colors to the Himba, you might think them unreasonable for not understanding the question “how many in red and how many in blue”. 

That is unless you, too, could define the world as they define it.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  (Nelson Mandela)

The next time you are studying a new language, even if you are trying just to learn a few key phrases, and are frustrated, remember: humans are social creatures, we are pre-programmed to communicate, you learned a language once (as a baby), and you can do it again.


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