Why I Learn a Second Language?

We live in a time when everything seems to be in English: web addresses, flight numbers and programming languages. It is tempting to not see that there are other languages being used in the world, let alone be motivated to learn a second language. It is no wonder that less than 1% of American adults have learned a non-English language and can speak that language “very well”. [1]

I am an English language enthusiast. When I first started to learn English, I considered it a school requirement. But now, I take true pleasure studying it. Behind this transition was my realization in the deeper purpose of learning a second language.

First, learning a second language helps us listen. We do not learn a language by just speaking it. We listen first. To understand a speech, we have to comprehend the nuances contained in that speech. Only by grasping these nuances we will be able to decode its message. As we pay attention to every syllable that is uttered, we listen to the whole message rather than the parts that we like. So, we listen more skillfully. While teaching a friend Chinese, I found one particular “listening” example intriguing: when learning Chinese, English speakers cannot fully pronounce the last Chinese character in a sentence, making them sound as if they have not finished the sentence. In contrast, when learning English, Chinese speakers almost always raise their pitch at the end of every sentence, making them sound not confident. At first, this issue appeared mysterious. However, over time I realized that when speaking their mother tongue, English speakers tend to lower their tone at the end of a sentence while Chinese speakers do the oppose by raising their tone. Because we have listened, we found the cause. Learning a second language makes us a better listener.

Second, it helps us think. As humans, we are animals of speech. As we talk, we form ideas. Every idea is an opinion. Furthermore, what is said will inform how it is said, which sooner or later shapes our disposition. This is why language forms how we think. George Orwell pointed out that if a certain word is removed from our dictionary, we immediately become incapable of comprehending its meaning. For example, before the 19th century, the word “democracy” and “science” did not exist in Chinese. Because they were not there to begin with, these two concepts were not mentioned in ancient Chinese scripts. Therefore, the average Chinese person did not understand what democracy was and what science was. Moreover, language is the medium of our thoughts and the engine to process their meanings. Mastering a second language will make us aware of how language overrides and shapes our own thinking without our being conscious of it. Gradually, language learners come to know the power the language has over them and others. As their awareness grows, they start to broaden their vision and refine the way they analyze, discuss and set forth ideas. Thus, a second language cultivates our minds and helps us think.

Lastly, learning a second language is fun. Learning English has allowed me to build deeper relationships with people who I care about, enjoy a culture I did not come from more fully, and stay informed when ordering food in any non-Chinese restaurant.

Learning a second language means more than learning the language itself. When learning a language, many people take a functional or utilitarian perspective, but I want to argue that we should not confuse the means with the end. A utilitarian view will tell you that it is all about functional communication with the “outside”. However, my experience has shown that it is all about what is happening “inside”. Reading, speaking and writing are by-products, enhanced listening and thinking abilities are the main-products, which eventually lead to a happier life.

In a time when less than 1% of the population in this country has learned and can speak another language fluently, what is needed is the ability to be bilingual.

 

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