11 Dec 2018 8min read

Why learn a new language?


I was in Tibet last year and met a middle-aged Tibetan Doctor from whom I got to know an old German photographer, perhaps the only person from Germany that was issued a Tibetan permanent residency - yes, I was in disbelief upon hearing about that so I demanded proof from him, to which he took out from his wallet a piece of paper no larger than 20 cm squared meter with a passport photo attached to it, aged to a degree you could tell it’s slightly oxidated, stamped with red ink indicating the authenticity of the right given to this man. Just like all Germans, he is fluent in many languages, and especially astounding in his case as among which are Chinese and Cantonese. We didn’t have much time to converse as he was in a hurry to catch the sky of that particular night. The Tibetan sky, he told me, was the primary reason for why he lives here. The Tibetan language, he told me on the other hand, as a part of the response to my curiosity regarding his opinions on how hard picking up Tibetan would be for Sino-Anglophone - I had been toying with the idea of picking up Tibetan as my forth language - is not worth learning as your fourth language. Maybe as your tenth, he added, and maybe not to learn the one used by modern day Tibetan people but the one in the scriptures for your archaeological amusement, you see, in this day and age men who only speak Tibetan here have only three hobbies: drinks, talks about politics and plays the dice game.

Why learn a new language? Or more formally, how to justify the investment spent on accustoming oneself to a particular unfamiliar linguistic system? The justification certainly depends a lot on the degree of accustomation you want to achieve. Let’s assume accustomation to a degree that either one holds:

  1. you can pass a variation of the Turing test: write an essay in the new language without using a bilingual dictionary (on the other hand, the use of a corpus, etc, is allowed) and convince your readers that you are a native speaker.

  2. you are be able to have deep and meaningful conversations in the new language with native speakers without relying on a translator.

In my opinions a proper justification would have to consist at least two points below. The more points the justification contains the more you can convince yourself to learn that particular new language.

  1. Category: Romantic Love
    1. To communicate better
    2. To masterfully flirt with her or him
    3. To share deeper idiosyncratic moments together such as getting a cultural or linguistic reference immediately in a punny joke of the native language of hers or his
  2. Category: Work and Life
    1. Better access to a particular talent pool (in hiring and collaboration)
    2. Better job opportunities (in being hired)
    3. To impress and deepen connections with native speakers
    4. To partake in a subculture
  3. Category: Personal goal
    1. To start a revolution (e.g. Ho Chi Minh)
    2. To translate interesting things (e.g. Richard Wilhelm)
    3. To be a missionary
    4. Fame (e.g. Daniel Tammet)

Note: the list intensionally excludes “To better appreciate a certain work in their native language.” That can certainly be an interesting experience (e.g. reading Gödel’s original proof in German, reading Italo Calvino in Italiano, watching Anime in Japanese) and engaging in such type of activities can certainly facilitate the process of acquiring the new language, but they lack the elements that tick with our hunter-gatherer hardwares to be convincing enough a pragmatical justification for self-persuasion to endeavour.

Archy Wilhes: Hey there! Thanks for reading! Hit me up at a@0a.io if you enjoy this piece and/or would like to give me some suggesitons on stuff, etc! Thanks! Let's be pen pals :))

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