in Life Optimization

Learn A Language for Your Next Best Friend, Not Your Boss


There’s a Freakonomics podcast which attempts to determine whether the massive chunk of time Americans spend learning foreign languages in public schools is a worthwhile investment. Stephen Dubner juxtaposes optimistic elementary schoolers who think Spanish will help them become millionaires alongside a lighthearted Spanish professor’s findings that the economic impact of a new language is nil in most cases. And Bryan Caplan highlights the opportunity cost of a new tongue, noting that many Americans aren’t even literate or numerate in English yet.

It is surprising to see exactly how unhelpful it is to learn another language. Even the Economist’s breakdown of exactly how much each Romance language would net you over a lifetime with compounded interest doesn’t make a compelling case to those trying to pull their kids out of language classes. It does highlight the fact that the less common languages earn you more, as the native Spanish speakers in America render your halting Spanish moot in a job hunt. You’re better off learning German, statistically speaking.

But both the Economist and Dubner are missing something. They are viewing the world through an economist’s eyes, where money and marketable job skills are the only things that matter. When the discussion is centered around American public school requirements (and its accompanying taxpayer costs) then this view is justified. General education requirements aside, I think we can agree that the function of public school should be to provide students with the ability to earn a living (which it currently does not, but that’s a different post).

Al-Bab is the only blog I’ve seen that comes close, in an interview with a British diplomat at the Egyptian embassy. He notes that it is not his Arabic knowledge that lets him excel at his job, (as his important interviews are conducted in English), but rather the fact that he has tried to learn it. Locals see that he has spent hours attempting to learn their language, and that goes a long way towards respect and mutual understanding, no matter how paltry the vocabulary may be. That is the reason to learn a language; not for the economic payoff but for the life understanding that comes with it.

Learning a second language is NOT about earning a living. You can do that fine in one language. Instead, it is about making connections with other humans. Nelson Mandela said it best: “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.”  You wield a new way of conveying your thoughts to others, and this changes the very nature of how your brain interprets the world, while at the same time letting you connect with millions of new people. While these may not be valuable skills in the global marketplace, they are very valuable skills to have in the globe itself.

You only get one life to live, so why not make the most of it? If you accept that rationale, then learning a language is one of the single best things to do in order to carpe the hell out of diem. A new language fundamentally changes the way you form thoughts and enunciate them into words, as well as the way you process identical sensory inputs – in effect transforming the very world around you. As one example of many, Germans think of bridges as elegant while Spanish think of them as sturdy, due to their respective grammatical genders.

If ‘the world is a book, while those who don’t travel read only one page is an apt metaphor, then let me extend it further: The world is a story, and monolinguists have only heard one version of it.

Just as movies are never carbon copies of the books they’re based on, an official press release is not the same as the eyewitness accounts, nor is the published version the same as a fireside retelling, and so forth. Different languages allow you to approach the same story that the world gives you from different angles. When you only have one shot at hearing that story, don’t you want to hear as much of it as you can?

The static world is one thing, but the living characters inhabiting it are unique multifaceted entities, each with their own story to tell. Any seasoned traveler has noticed that while the ancient architecture, breathtaking vistas, and alien landscape are enjoyable parts of a journey, it is the people you meet on the road who make travel truly special. From the differences between their culture and yours to the personal quirks they sport, it is the people who stand out in my memory far more prominently than the places they inhabit.

And while the life of a traveler is not the same as that of the homebody, many of the truths learned on the road apply at home. It is my firm belief that the above maxim learned on the road (paraphrased as, “It’s about people, stupid”) is one of the best examples of this. Traveling is about people. Home means people more than place. Life is about people. Meaningful relationships, shared laughs, and quality time spent with living, breathing people. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the best packing cubes and obsessing over which sights to see, no, it just means that it is better to enjoy those things with new people.

And how are you going to connect with people if you can’t understand them? Not only will you win more hearts with another language, but you’ll gain a greater connection and empathy with the way they see the world, rather than getting your own version of reality parroted back at you. It forces you to think about what you’re saying, instead of just opening your mouth and letting words come out naturally. Indeed, researchers found that people speaking in a second language make less emotional decisions, even with personal preferences controlled.

My own forays into languages other than English have gifted me countless moments of the kind that make life worth living. From my excitement when I finally dreamed in Spanish, to the laughs I’ve shared with Brazilian friends over my mangling of Portuguese words, to simple translations like Turkish’s take on “I’m all grown up” coming out as “I’m as big as a donkey”, my knowledge of other languages has enriched my life in ways that could never be measured on an economist’s line graph. Standardized testing doesn’t measure this stuff – you can’t tie a line between knowledge and joy as neatly  as you can between knowledge and money, but that doesn’t mean the former should be neglected.

Learn a new language for the friends you have yet to meet who speak it. Learn a new language for a new way of processing the world. Learn a new language for yourself. And who knows – there’s always a chance it’ll come in handy at work someday.