For years I worked hard to learn a language: French. Until, around a year ago, I concluded that it was, in fact, a redundant effort.
I had heard the classic arguments in favour of learning a language from friends, teachers, and in the media, over and again. All of which no longer seemed to hold true.
I want to outline my thinking on this subject here, as I feel that these arguments in favour of language learning have true value.
The myths of employability, travel and ‘usefulness’
Most commonly spouted is that having a second language will make you more employable. Yes, on average, most linguists have higher earning potential, but what I hadn’t grasped was that my native language, English, is truly the language of business.
I currently work for a Fortune 500 company and globally, almost all employees must be able to speak English to operate effectively. All the of the business partners I work with around the globe communicate in English, and even the French partners will communicate in English to all my colleagues. Even when working with French companies, it is a rare occasion that I will speak to them in French.
Based on my observations, for native English speakers, the most useful (read: employable) languages tend to be:
- German, particularly for Engineering and manufacturing roles
- Mandarin, as manufacturing of consumer goods is predominantely situated in China
- Spanish, due to its extensive reach and the growth of the Latin America region
French serves no purpose to me on a day to day basis living in the UK.
Another highly recited argument: another language allows you to travel more. Again, for non-native English speakers, learning English would undoubtedly enable travel, but for me, alas, I’m confined to the limits of l’hexagone.
And finally, we are seeing the consistent emergence of new technologies that increasingly look to make languages redundant, such as Google Translate’s live translation. Recent projections also indicate that globally, we are losing languages at an unprecedent rate, potentially one every two weeks. In a few century’s time, the world may be much less linguistically diverse. It seemed to me that the time for learning languages was increasingly old hat.
Peak resentment and frustration
I had hit peak resentment toward the French language whilst living in Lyon, France. A sense of complete cultural isolation set in. I realised that although I understood 100% of the words French people were saying, I never understood the meaning. The French way of thinking felt so alien to me that even common constructions of French phrases seemed so vastly different from my native language that I felt I would never comprehend it.
Letting the dust settle
Over the past year, during which time I have spoken next to no French at all, I have reflected a lot on the question of “Why learn a language?” It has taken some time for me to allow my frustration and bitterness to calm, but gradually a new picture has begun to emerge.
I’ve started to see how learning a second language has reshaped my life and my perspective on the world. It has pushed me to develop myself, to grow, to understand people better. Fundamentally, learning a language changed how I see the world.
Language = jazz?
Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
– Good Will Hunting
In most academic subjects, there are a set of formulas to follow to be successful. Maths and science are obvious subjects here, but it equally rings true for the humanities. By reading and reciting the arguments of other scholars, and learning frameworks for constructing essays, it is possible to have a perfect straight-A record without actually thinking in both a critical and creative way.
When learning a language, and particularly when living abroad, your brain is presented with a limited frame of reference: your existing vocabulary. You must get creative quickly to make those key connections that solve the problems with which you are faced in daily life.
Finding new ways to get creative
To comprehend the language, you must determine meaning by making connections between roots of words, contextual clues, and body language. To communicate well in the language, you must find new, creative ways of conveying meaning using the cards you have in your hand to play.
Here is a simple example: ordering a cake in a coffee shop. Although you could simply point to the one you want and say “S’il vous plait”, a better way is to strive for the full sentence, even if you have gaps in your knowledge. As your vocabulary and grammar improves, this repeated process of striving toward the expression you need enables you to discover increasingly complex challenges. This creates a pattern of continuous growth. As in the coffee shop example, when living abroad and learning the language, day to day life becomes a constant, consistent challenge.
A new way of living
Everything that you previously took for granted when living in your native country and speaking in your native tongue is upgraded. You are constantly problem-solving as your brain hones in on the precise objective of the sentence. In the coffee shop example, it is to purchase a cake. So whilst you could look at a language as a set of words and rules, or “a bunch of keys, three pedals and a box of wood”, being able to express yourself goes behind formulaic recitals of vocabulary. You need to play jazz.
This constant challenge has a ripple effect on your entire life. Over the years, people have regularly asked me if I think or dream in French. The answer is neither yes nor no, but somewhere in between. When I lived in France, my brain felt in a different state. I didn’t think as freely as I did when in the UK. Reflecting on the conversations I had had that day, the memories were of speaking in French. When I thought ahead to conversations I was planning, I imagined them taking place in French. But I certainly wasn’t thinking in French.
Understanding how your thoughts operate
As a writer, I am tempted to interpret my thoughts as words or sentences. I imagine it as a scrolling banner of new ideas floating through my head. I assume my thoughts are sentences, that when describe thoughts to other people, we communicate in sentences. We make thoughts communicable by converting ideas into words.
However, I realised that my thoughts tend to appear fully formed in my head, with images associated with them. This is a concept I had never previously considered. Have you considered what form your thoughts take? Do they arrive fully formed, or do the concepts layer upon one another in your mind?
I always assumed that my thoughts were English. They are not.
My thoughts are concepts and ideas, projections of the future and memories of the past. The process of reasoning begins with holding a concept in my mind and testing it against different potential scenarios. It is not my ego talking about some kind of sophisticated brain power. It is a description of how a human process plays out in my head. We may not all be the same in this regard, but through this process, I have come to understand my own mind a little more clearly.
The change in how I perceive my thoughts is reflected in several studies that show a neurological change in those who learn a second language, as well as evidence of an increased ability to problem-solve.
Learning a language not only requires creative solutions, but the brain must learn to distinguish and identify new sounds (and attach meaning to those sounds, which is arguably a textbook definition of what a language is!). As a native English speaker, I hugely struggle with “au-dessous” and “au-dessus” in French, meaning “above” and “below” respectively. Apart from the fact that I find it ridiculous that two almost-identical sounding words have two completely different meanings (!), for several years I was completely unable to distinguish between the two. So, I was dependent on context or body language, such as pointing at the location, to understand. For several years, I genuinely believed there was no true difference in sound; rather, it was a difference in emphasis. I was living in denial…
The breakthrough moment
The first breakthrough moment came through a conversation with my manager at the time, who was a native English speaker and had lived in Paris for over 10 years. He admitted that he struggled to differentiate the sound, but had learned to shape his mouth to create a sound that was comprehensible to French people. As I began to use the technique myself, I eventually started to hear a difference. That’s not to say that the whole experience was not slightly traumatic – when the 8-year old you are babysitting shakes her head at you and says “wow you can’t hear that? You’re crazy”, it is a little soul destroying….
When spoken quickly, I still struggle to distinguish these sounds, but I can now get by. Many other linguists experience the same. For example, in a study of Japanese linguists, most could not distinguish between the English sounds ‘r’ and ‘I’. To me, these sounds are so different that it baffles me that the two cannot be distinguished, and yet I believe it. Each language has its own framework of sounds, many of which sit outside the boundaries of a non-native speaker’s own language.
The scientific bit…
It is these types of challenges which result in the growth of the brain, quite literally. According to a Swedish study which used MRI scans of the brain to measure its response to learning a second language among adults, the more difficult the challenge the more the brain grew. Alison Mackey at the Guardian presents a positive interpretation of these findings:
“This recent brain-based research provides good news. We know that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible than monolinguals. Canadian studies suggest that Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later for bilinguals than for monolinguals, meaning that knowing a second language can help us to stay cognitively healthy well into our later years.”
Culture is such a broad term, but I want to present the case here that culture and language are inextricably linked. You cannot comprehend a culture without first knowing a language. Equally, you cannot understand a language without grasping culture.
This two-way, interconnection took me some time to grasp, and it was only once I returned to France a second time that I began to see that linguistic progression was dependent upon cultural understanding. As language is fundamentally a means of communication, to be able to convey concepts and ideas successfully it must be done within a cultural framework that makes sense to the recipient.
Meetings, meetings and more meetings
Working in an all-French office, I was increasingly frustrated by seemingly endless meetings in which subjects were discussed over and again, often going around in circles assessing and reassessing the same problems. Yet to my surprise, at the end of these meetings, my colleagues would congratulate one another on a successful meeting and regularly would mention that they had made progress forward.
Successful? You haven’t taken any decisions! We have made zero progress! We are all walking out of this meeting with nothing further to do because we haven’t decided on a route forward! My mind was whirring.
This sense of frustration at the lack of action peaked at a customer meeting – fortunately, the customer was not present to witness my sheer shock and disbelief.
The meeting was an ‘installation’ of a wall, in effect the aisle of the store, if it were to be 100% full of our product. Our key competitors were each to present their own ‘wall’ (aisle), and the buyer would then pick and choose the best products from each supplier.
We planned this installation for a month, drafted and redrafted planograms, ordered in all required product samples and, finally headed up to Paris to fit the wall. Several hours later, with nothing on the shelves, my colleague took a step back and asked us all to stop. He stared for a minute at the wall and enunciated slowly:
“What we really need to determine… is the philosophy of the wall”
The PHILOSOPHY of the WALL?
Are you serious?!
Would you PLEASE take those pegs and stick them on there so we can at least see this bloody wall completed and have something to pitch here?
(Christopher, if you’re reading, no offense intended, I get it now)
It was a moment where I felt fully isolated. It is strange to work for such a long time, with the aim of having complete command over a language, only to realise you understand 100% of the words and 0% of the meaning. I was completely baffled. Our objective was to win the business, was it not? Why did we spend so much time debating? The products were good, the planograms were strong and well-thought out. I simply could not grasp this way of working.
The ‘aha’ moment
My breakthrough, ‘aha’ moment was when I read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. Meyer’s research maps out different cultures across 8 scales. One of which is persuading, classified as deductive vs inductive. The below image, taken from this Business Insider article, shows how different countries approach persuasion.
Her research indicates that France is a concept-first culture, whilst in the UK we are application-first. This means that French people will seek to define clearly a problem first before reasoning out a solution. Suddenly, all of those long meetings made sense! To my French colleagues, all possible actions seemed a waste of energy if you are not first aligned in principle.
Today, this way of thinking remains alien to me. In a fast-paced, action-oriented business world, I struggle to see how things can get accomplished without a proactive nature. You have to take calculated risks and make decisions without all the facts in front of you. When working in the UK, it is easy to be dismissive of the French way; but to be able to cooperate and be productive, I had to adapt.
Cultural differentiation vs assimilation
In a way, it is a strange reversal in priorities… We put so much energy into cultural differentiation when operating in our own culture. We want to stand out from the crowd, embrace our free-spirited natures, prove that we are not the same as everyone else. This is the exact opposite goal when learning a language.
You are forced to put yourself in another person’s shoes, analyse how they think, how they relate to one another and how they respond to problems. Not only through observation, but by mimicking this patterns in yourself. This tests aspects of your own character and personality. You grow as an individual, increasing your empathy for others, and you grow intellectually.
So why haven’t I learned a third language?
There are two explanations for this, depending on how kind I want to be to my ego.
The first is that I’m busy and have a lot going on. I prioritised other things, but would quickly pick up another language if I dedicated the time.
Or, the alternative is that I actually have found learning a third language harder than the second. The second language was built over an extended period of time. This meant I never felt overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead of me, and the joy of each win was exciting. The first time I was understood by a French person, the first time I ordered in a restaurant in French, or asked for directions… Each occasion built up my confidence.
In a third language, each time a situation like this occurs, I do not feel this sense of achievement. Instead, I see only frustration at the limits of my own ability in this language. On these occasions, the scale of the task ahead seems insurmountable, as I want to see quick results. I don’t want to dedicate another two decades of my life to reach a mid-level of fluency. Whilst rationally I know that a third language would not take this same amount of time, I have not yet overcome this final hurdle.
Ultimately, learning a language is an incredibly powerful way to change your life, to reconfigure your brain, to challenge yourself to new ways of thinking. It is a way to find a connection with people very different from yourself. Not only do you truly understand how other people and other cultures operate, but you better understand your own.
Questions for you
If you speak a second language, would you say my experience is similar to your own? What elements of your experience are different?
If you have never taken up another language, what are the barriers to you making a start? Have you considered the idea before and if so, what has stopped you until now to complete this?
And of course, I would selfishly love for you to share any tips on how I can overcome these psychological hurdles to learning a third language!