Why learn a language?

Jed points out the essay Why the Gun is Civilization. Well-said, in my opinion.

After I read that one, I looked around Marko’s site a little and found this other post, We don’t need to learn no foreignese. This one hits a couple of my other hot buttons. The first is that, if you want to learn a language for business purposes, learn English.

And, I mean, learn English. I happen to enjoy reading fanfiction, much of which is pretty bad. Some is surprisingly good, but more is abysmal. One of the things that makes for a painful read is the fact that many of the authors don’t know English. I’m not talking about the ones for whom it’s a second language – it’s usually pretty obvious when that’s the case. I’m talking about the native speakers who haven’t learned proper spelling, grammar, or idioms.

Who don’t know which to use of “to,” “two,” and “too.”

Who use “would of” instead of “would have.”

Who write (and this is surprisingly common, in my experience) “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Who use “who” where “whom” would be correct, and sometimes sprinkle “whom” in a few inappropriate places because they’ve seen it used in other writing.

Who misuse “your” and “you’re.”

Who don’t know where commas go, nor when semicolons or periods should be used in their stead.

Who use “loose” when the correct word would be “lose.”

Every word processor I’m aware of these days (and many text editors) has a spelling checker. Grammar checkers come with some, and are available for others. Books abound on the subject, both academic and popular. My daughter ran off with my copy of The Transitive Vampire; I suppose I’m lucky that she let me keep Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. English is the most common business language, for historical reasons, and because we drive the global economy. Learn to speak and write it properly, particularly if you need to use it professionally.

If you want to learn a language for purposes other than business, you can choose from any number of other languages. I have friends who learned Japanese so that they could watch anime and read manga. This was before English translations became widely available, and learning Japanese (or reading a plot synopsis produced by someone who knew the language) was about the only way to follow the action. One of these friends now travels to Japan on his company’s business; his knowledge of the language became a professional asset.

I have other friends who learned Portuguese and Swahili, because they served in the Peace Corps in countries where those languages were spoken. Another friend used to be a business translator of French.

It’s true that geography doesn’t provide much reason for Americans to learn a second language; it’s not like Europe, where a day’s driving can potentially take you through several countries. Demographics can provide a reason, though. I once read that there were 26 languages in use in the San Francisco school system, because there was a requirement that teachers be available who could teach in every child’s native language.

If there’s a Chinatown, a Little Italy, or any other such neighborhood in your city, you’ll find people there who speak that language, and I doubt that there’s anywhere in the country where Spanish wouldn’t be useful (although that leads into another rant). Here in Denver, we have a large Vietnamese community, as well as a Greektown. We have organized societies for learning French and Japanese that I’m aware of, and there may be other such groups.

To an extent, it’s intellectual curiosity – it sometimes seems that it’s actively discouraged. Accept what you’re told, and don’t ask questions. To an extent, it’s relevance – if nobody in your area speaks Catalan, unless you have a specific reason to learn apart from, “That would be a cool language to learn,” you’re going to have trouble. And, to an extent, it’s need – unless you have an actual or perceived need, there’s little to drive you toward learning another language in this country.

My needs with respect to learning another language aren’t very important; my job won’t be affected, nor will much of my personal life. It’s more for fun, and to “prevent my brain from ossifying.” I also think there’s a good chance that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis will turn out to be correct, which is one reason (and a good one, in my mind) to learn another language.

But mostly, it’s for fun.

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