How Learning A New Language Can Help You Learn About Your Native Tongue

It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to understand your native tongue better is by learning an entirely new language.
Understand English Better

When you decide to pick up a new language, there’s an obvious linguistic advantage: you’re learning a new language. And yes, that’s great. That’s not the only thing you can learn, however. In addition to increasing your multilingualism, learning another language can help you understand English better.

You may think, “Why would I need to learn my first language better? I’m a native speaker of it!” Even so, there’s always more to learn. Learning another language can open your eyes to how language works on a deeper level.

Learn To Speak By The Rules

When you were learning your first language, you practically learned it by osmosis. Your parents didn’t have to teach you specifically how to say “hello,” or what the third-person past tense form of “to read” is. You just kind of learned it. This in itself is a remarkable statement on human ability. But it also means that you might understand your language only intuitively, rather than logically. By learning a second language, you can learn both the rules to the new language and also figure out the rules to your mother tongue.

To choose just one example, take the parts of speech. You probably have a general memory of prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and the rest. But pushed to name all the parts of speech and what they mean, you might have a little trouble. And the ability to pull apart a sentence and label all the constituent parts can come in handy.

To learn a new language, you’re forced to learn about parts of speech and how they fit together. Then, you can extrapolate them into your first language. It’s like the difference between owning a car and knowing how the car works. Owning a car is great, but when something goes wrong, you can’t fix it without knowing how the parts interact.

Again, this isn’t something that comes up on a daily basis, but you never know when it can be useful. For someone who wants to improve their writing in their native language, or who just wants to know why the language works like it does, studying another language is a great option.

Connect Your Language To Others

The English language is made up of a mishmash of many other languages. That’s true of many languages, but English especially has attributes from a number of different origins. By learning a language that is historically connected to English, you can learn more about the language’s history.

Your best bet if you’re interested in learning more about English is to learn either German or French, both of which contributed about a quarter of the words used in English today. Thanks to these similarities, these languages also happen to be a bit easier to learn than others. As you learn these languages, insights into English naturally pop up. We’ll note that Latin is also a big contributor to English, but it’s a slightly less useful language overall unless you’re learning it for a specific reason.

Why does English use both “blond” and “blonde”? Well in French, the addition of the -e makes the adjective feminine, which is why “blonde” is used by some people to describe blonde women. Where the heck does the word “kindergarten” come from? It’s German, and literally just means “child garden.” Studying the roots of English words can help explain a lot of the linguistic weirdness of the English language.

If you don’t want to learn French or German, don’t worry, because English has interacted with tons of other languages. English has pulled words from Arabic, Italian, Chinese, Czech, Finnish, Hindi, Japanese and many, many other languages. Pretty much any language you learn — especially those from Asia or Europe — will eventually provide you with some insight into the English language.

Break Your Definitions Of How Language Works

English is one language among many. And if you only know one language, your idea of what language can be is limited. Learning a new language can open your eyes to the full potential of human language.

Take word order. English uses subject-verb-object order in all sentences. “I (subject) like (verb) pie (object).” You can’t say “Pie like I” or “Like pie I” or any other iteration because it becomes “ungrammatical.” If you’re only familiar with English, you might think that subject-verb-object is the only possibility. But it’s not. Some languages are verb-subject-object, some are subject-object-verb and some (like Latin) don’t require you to stick to any specific word order.

With other languages, you can see how different aspects of speech are used differently. English only uses tone to indicate whether a sentence is a question or not (as in, you raise your tone of voice at the end of a question), while tonal languages like Mandarin use tone to change the meaning (the same syllable will mean a different thing if it’s pronounced with a higher or lower tone). There are so many more ways to convey information than the way English does.

To quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” While this was meant to refer to language as a whole, it can also mean the specific language we learn as a child. Don’t let yourself be limited to a single language.

Learn more about English by learning a new language.
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