Learn the Language(s) that Matter

Languages can be all kinds of things…

The science of language learning is complex. Parents stress about ensuring their children learn English, Chinese and their native languages by 5 years old. Yet we have no way to predict the utility of those languages and the cost-impact of learning and maintaining a suitable fluency. Learning multiple languages matters less than learning to work hard when needed, learn, communicate and be a good, empathetic person.

Learning multiple languages is hard, costly and frustrating. It is impossible without an environment that requires it or interests that drive it. Forcing yourself (or your children) to learn produces limited value. That time is better spent elsewhere.

For the Fear of it…

I commonly hear parents of young children talk about the importance of exposing their children to “as many languages as possible” when they are young. Yet, children, like the rest of us, have limited time and attention.

Language “collection” has become a sign of future success (or fear of being left behind because all the other parents are doing it to their children) rather than a connection to actual wellbeing.

I’ve not heard of any studies which compare the long term wellbeing of monolingual and multilingual children from similar environments and backgrounds. I’d imagine that the differences are minor if any.

People working in environments that require another or multiple languages (which represent a minority of jobs available) have obvious reasons for learning those languages and benefits for doing so. Likewise, the environmental necessity of learning multiple languages in some counties (India as an example), don’t require parental management and effort as the environment speaks for itself.

In countries like Singapore, India, and Norway, the local dialects are often a combination of multiple languages or the environment obligates people to learn multiple dialects and languages. In these places, learning multiple, relevant languages is a major benefit and default necessity. Someone is likely to save time and money by knowing those languages in excess of the relative cost of learning them.

Knowing the language(s) of the place you work, live means you can leverage shared social experiences and meanings and streamline local interactions. In every monolingual society, where the country operates entirely within that language, spending too much time learning other languages is likely to harm you (as that time spent learning those languages wasn’t spent on other activities). If you are going to push yourself to do something you don’t enjoy, you are likely better off doing that on something that will make your time well spent.

There is novelty, joy, challenge found in learning languages for some people. Forcing yourself (or your children) into it, sacrificing other uses of your family time for it, is not the right approach.

For the Joy of It

Doesn’t multilingualism cultivate an appreciation of multiculturalism? Language necessity is related to the economic or cultural dominance of a single group at a point in time. Japanese was a must-learn language at one point. Likewise with Latin and French. Today the must learn languages are Mandarin and Korean. For non English speakers, English is often seen as a must.

A stereotypical “cultured and progressive” person will have an appreciation of language learning. Yet to afford the luxury of language learning, such a progressive and cultured person must already be wealthy enough to spend that money and time.

Language Learning Barriers

There is value. Learning another language gives you an appreciation for the habits, quirks and differences that language provides to the speaker. There are many different ways to gain this kind of empathy and appreciation. And someone without much empathy to begin with, won’t gain it by being forced into language learning classes. People without empathy learn it through examples and experiences where being empathetic to others serves their own self interested objectives. Or they don’t and they live their lives as such.

Setting the expectation that only through language learning can people appreciate and respect each other goes against the hundreds of thousands of companies around the world where people from multiple countries buy/sell/work without knowing the language of their peers. Without some kind of driving self interest, language learning is a wasted investment of time.

If anything the most divisive propaganda politics of places like the USA and UK show that languages aren’t the source for empathy and respect as entire countries can tear themselves apart using the same language and different ideals.

In a monolingual country, you will have much better access to talent if foreign language isn’t a requirement. You could make a very long tailed argument about how wealthy people tend to be better educated and better educated people tend to learn other languages and so requiring multiple languages ensures that you have access to the best talent of any country… but really?

Companies and people should continue to find solutions to working with groups who don’t share a common language. That is how we remove the barriers between our countries and cultures. Requiring foreign language capabilities simply excludes everyone who cannot access or afford such training.

For developing countries where a global language like English or Mandarin isn’t spoken, government initiatives to promote and drive English learning seem appealing projects. I can imagine that these projects attract international development funding and fit nicely into development check boxes. It’s likely an easy sell to voters as well.

Yet these programs come at a cost. Those people most likely to benefit from jobs which require English, are most likely to already be from wealthy families. The Japanese education system is an almost perfect example of how mandating English learning without a focus on environmental need (most Japanese people will never ‘need’ English as part of their lives) and ignorance of cultivated interest (everyone has to learn without exception) produces massive waste. The education system chooses to spend time and money on English language development which could be spent otherwise.

Language Paradox

Language learning also has a massive uncertainty paradox. Given the time it takes to get competent at a language, it is impossible to know how useful that language will be once you know it well enough. Thus, spending time today is a bad choice unless it offers other direct or intrinsic benefits to you (the most common direct benefit is that the job you want to do requires that language, and an indirect benefit of enjoying the structure, puzzle or sounds of the language.

This is likely why so many people choose to learn English as a second language given that it is one of the languages that is most like to retain value over the long run. A similar argument could be made for Mandarin. These are ‘safe’ choices that you can be reasonably sure will retain some value in general. But will learning that language for you be a necessity for your life if it isn’t a passion or interest?

The Sales Pitch

Language learning isn’t sold in this manner. It’s sold as a way to increase your / your child’s value today.

From a social perception standpoint, the assumption is accurate. In parenting gossip and media, languages are seen as great “badges” to collect. Yet the long term cost/benefit to forcing a child (or yourself) to memorize words and pass exams is difficult if not impossible to quantify. While it may benefit you in the future but, given that we have limited time, isn’t it better to spend time on something that we know has more direct impact on long term well being? (example: spending more time as a family talking, eating and socialising).

The Technology Cliff

The other downside to spending heavily in language learning today is technology. What wasn’t clear 20 years ago, when I was in school, is obvious today. Within the next 10 years, technology will largely remove the necessity of language learning for the majority (Casual and hobby learning will likely increase. And, a more specialized language profession will likely emerge). I think 10 years is conservative given the technology that we see today.

Tourists can use Augmented Reality apps on their phones to live translate menus. Google Translate and thousands of other apps offer real-time, live, automated translation. And most trips to most places can be preplanned and managed by yourself in your own language. Email services offer to automatically translate emails on the fly allowing colleagues to write to each other in their preferred language. Eventually, we will see recommendations on tone and perspective.

Multilingualism as a Specialty

Such developments don’t remove the importance of people who are multilingual and able to work within complex, nuanced environments where for the foreseeable future (if not forever), language learning will be a necessity. And such developments may even make it more profitable to be a professional multiculturalist and multilinguist. As allowing more people to interact globally without needing complex language skills, creates more opportunities for different kinds of businesses.

And people who will do best in those kinds of professions are not the kind of people who are dragged by their parents to “Mandarin for 3 Year Olds” every Sunday at 10am.

Time is Limited

Every choice we make and every choice a parent makes on behalf of their child consumes time. Choosing to send your child to tutors for five languages, means you are choosing to not do (or not let your child do) something else.

Language acquisition requires a suitable environment, motivation/necessity and time. These requirements don’t change if you are 2, 6, 12 or 91.

Likewise, just as speaking multiple languages may give you access to certain opportunities, so does not speaking multiple languages. There isn’t once choice where you get access to everything without any costs. Each choice requires a trade off / letting go of something else.

Consider being presented with the choice whether to learn Chinese or Japanese, which would you choose?

Before making the choice, I’d first argue is it even necessary to choose at all. But let’s assume that I’ve already decided that I want to make this investment of time and agree with the trade offs.

Then, I’d choose the one that “speaks” to me.

More than 80% of learning a language is having a sincere interest in the language. If you don't enjoy hearing or understanding the language; if it doesn't interest and challenge you - don't bother starting.

I choose Japanese because I loved the way the language sounded and the logic of its structure and composition.

These days I still slowly work on my Mandarin but with the knowledge that I'll likely never be competent. At this point I have too many other priorities to invest the time (lack of interest and necessity problem).

Real Multiculturalism Encourages Monolingusim

Languages spoken around the world continue to decline. And why wouldn’t they? If I have limited time to spend on my life, why would I maintain my native language or my parent’s language when it’s so much easier to speak the more common language? Parents and grandparents often don’t learn the new language as the time cost is far too high compared to all the other things they spend time on. The older you get, you have relatively less time left, so investing a large percentage of that time in new language acquisition is likely a bad idea. (again, unless you have a strong personal interest in it).

Instead of encouraging multilingualism, we should all be encouraging linguistic diversity and empathy. If someone speaking any language can walk into a store anywhere in the world, speak and be understood, that language is likely to survive. If they need to learn a second language to protect their first, their first language will die.

Even ignoring dying languages, consider that the vast majority of the world speaks a different language yet every country has engineers, teachers, scientists, researchers and doctors. Most of their published work is in only one language. What we get access to is thus limited by the languages we speak.

Some may see this as a stronger argument for multilingualism. I see it as an argument against such a society. We shouldn’t expect our best engineers and scientists to need to speak multiple languages to do their best work. Instead we should consider it our obligation as a society to make the language you speak and read arbitrary to your access to information, learning and your ability to contribute.

Technology Fragments

Tech is often described as a great way to automate and streamline. Technology also lowers the cost of diversity. Amazon is the best and worst example of this. Their original business optimized and streamlined the retail space, destroying thousands of businesses. Yet in their place, millions more have sprung up.

Using technologies we have today, you can imagine a device which shows you pictures and asks you to write or speak the word in your language (the actual process by which Google and others train translation and other automation systems). After a number of rounds of structured exchanges of increasing complexity, and based on the structures of hundreds of other languages already stored in the system, the device would act as a filter helping translate the world around you describing it back to you in your language. (This is a massive over simplification. This has been attempted at scale and tends to falter due to the somewhat organic nature of languages. We have identified common traits across languages which could some day make this kind of thing possible).

The greatest opportunity that every technological advancement offers society is the chance to further fragment ourselves. To allow for greater variation, increased value, across ever smaller groups.

This is a greatly modified version of an answer I posted to Quora in Oct 2017. I’m slowly moving all my Quora answers to Medium and modifying them to be longer form and more relevant. This is ongoing.




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Connor Clark-Lindh

Connor Clark-Lindh

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