On March 28th, 2014, a colleague published a somewhat shaky video of me talking, rather nervously, about how I came to learn each of the nine languages I speak fluently. I don’t think any of us expected the response to be as overwhelming as it has been. The video has now been viewed over 10,000,000 times in its various formats. That’s a truly humbling thought.
As I’m sure you can imagine, language learning has had a huge impact on my life. Since that video, I’ve appeared on television and radio in several different countries, undertook the challenge to learn Turkish in one week with my twin brother, and am working ever more closely with universities and other educational institutions to investigate how digital platforms can enhance the learning process.
While many people ask me about my milestones on this journey, most wonder how it all began. Why did I decide to learn all these languages in the first place? Though my reasons have evolved over time, with different inspirations for each language, my motivations for learning have never changed. Here are my seven main reasons for learning languages:
1) Learning a language is fun — and enormously fulfilling
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I’m something of a language geek. I love the academic, nerdy side of languages. For me, using a new grammar structure successfully is tantamount to beating my brother at Monopoly. Don’t worry, though — I realize this isn’t wholly normal, and I can empathize with people for whom language learning conjures images of dreary language classes stifled by dry grammar and vocabulary lists. I too was at school in the nineties.
Fun was the first reason I ever learned a language. I started learning Spanish at the age of eight. What reason does an eight-year-old have for doing anything? I figure it either comes down to fun or obligation, and one normally cancels out the other. I decided to learn Spanish on the beach in Spain with my brother. The presence of a learning buddy and the immediacy of people’s joyous reactions to my attempts were all I needed to convince me it was fun. And the rest is history!
2) To get more out of that next vacation
The realization that one can get so much more out of vacations has been a huge motivator for me ever since. Yes, you’re less likely to miss the ferry or end up paying through the nose for souvenirs, but the most striking difference you’ll recognize is that you feel comfortable in new environments. Everything may seem unfamiliar, but you’ll be able to navigate your way around with help from the best guide there is — human interaction.
Serendipity bequeaths language learners with wonderful experiences when they’re abroad. You’ll be met with appreciation by locals, as well as varying levels of surprise depending on the obscurity of your language combination: you’re English and learning Turkish in a week? Wow! Have a tea on the house! Packing a few words of the native language in your suitcase before setting off on a trip always pays off.
3) To discover a new side of yourself
Multilingual people often report feeling different — even to the point of having distinct personalities — in different languages. This can even happen when you come to a language later in life. Let’s take the example of humor, which can surely be considered a pillar of personality (especially for us Brits!). Humor is one of the hardest things to convey when you’re not fluent in a language. People sometimes compensate by being a bit more slapstick and self-effacing, or becoming a little more introverted, and sometimes people say they feel liberated from inhibitions they have in their native language. Language acquisition constitutes a genuine journey of self-discovery. You may surprise yourself with sudden bursts of Mediterranean flamboyance or German directness; if you want to call yourself fluent in Italian
, for example, you’ll have to master the language’s myriad gestures.
4) To understand the world around you better
The languages we speak shape the way that we see the world. Not only does a new language bestow new perspectives, but it also enables you to reflect on your own language and understand how it works. This is one of the things that makes acquiring further languages significantly easier.
Allow me to give you one example: I visited a doctor here in Germany some weeks ago and he diagnosed a Rippenfellentzündung. While I wasn’t completely sure what the implications of this would be, I knew what it likely was because of German’s lego-brick quality. Rippen are ribs, Fell generally refers to an animal’s hide or fur, and eine Entzündung is an inflammation. This means a Rippenfellenentzündung is probably some kind of inflammation of the surface of the lungs where it meets the ribcage. Do you know what this is called in English? Pleurisy, or pleuritis. And no, I didn’t know that either. Had an English doctor diagnosed me with pleurisy, my first assumption would have been that it’s terminal. And now I know how to say la pleuresía in nine languages.
5) To get that dream job … or the same job somewhere else
Speaking more than one language can improve your job prospects even if you don’t work in the areas of teaching and training, translating and interpreting, or proofreading and editing. For every highly specialized language expert, there are hundreds of non-experts using a second language on a daily basis at work. While the ability to express oneself is certainly desirable, there’s room to improve one’s language skills on the job when grammatical and lexical exactitude isn’t a necessity. This means you can do the same old 9-to-5, but in the infinitely more stimulating environment of a foreign workplace. Furthermore, the acquisition of a foreign language makes you a more rounded and employable candidate wherever in the world you end up planting roots.
6) To stay sharp and lead a lifetime of learning
Even if you now have your dream job in a foreign country surrounded by palm trees and happiness, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to stop learning. Even people who have accomplished their goals and feel confident in their jobs feel the need to keep challenging their minds. Language learning is a common way to do this. Why?
Besides the obvious utility, it’s also relatively easy to fit around a hectic schedule, and if approached in the right way, it can provide those all-important mini-motivations to keep you hurtling towards new goals: the first time you correctly conjugate a verb in Spanish without thinking, the time you guess a word through its compounds in German, or the time you subconsciously deliver an Italian gesture to accompany your words…
7) To be groovy
The British comedian Eddie Izzard delivered one of my favorite justifications for learning a language during his stand-up performance Dress To Kill — to be groovy! Since that performance, Eddie learned German from scratch and gave a performance in German every evening for six weeks in Berlin. Given his surreal brand of comedy, many of his sentences had likely never before been said in German. Weasels covered in gravy is a prime example. He now plans to do shows in Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Now that’s groovy.
Asked why he was learning languages, he answered, for “the fun, bloody adventure of it.” I concur with him, but I’m not about to stand up on stage in front of an audience and crack funnies… just yet! I’m going to cherish the friends and films and literature I’ve discovered through my languages, and I look forward to what my next one will bring.
Still undecided about which language to learn? Here are a few more persuasive arguments: