Why Learning A Foreign Language Is Worth It

I found this article in the BBC a few months ago about the fact that few people in the UK can speak a second language. This is probably true in the US as well, since we have similar education systems, etc. When I was growing up in school, we had three choices for languages: Spanish, German and French. I took German for 2 years, but I wasn’t very good at it. I can still remember a little bit (now I wish I knew more; it is an interesting language), but really I can’t even speak a bit.

Of course the same problem happens in Japan and Korea: children grow up learning English or some other language, but usually forget.

My high school was unusual becuase we had a class on Mandarin Chinese, and since I didn’t do well in German, I changed my class to be Chinese. I learned a lot, and can still speak a little, but I still didn’t learn enough. Only as an adult did I really start to learn any language seriously (Japanese of course), and that was because I studied in college for 2 years, and then met my wife after that.1

But the most important point about the article is this: it’s really helpful to be functional in a language; you don’t always have to be fluent. Functional means you can do basic things, have basic conversations, etc. Fluent of course is fluent. Fluency takes many tens of thousands of hours, but at least if you’re functional at a language, you can still have fun with it.

Right now, I am functional in Japanese, and getting functional in Korean. I probably will never be fluent in Japanese, but that’s ok. I can definitely travel around Tokyo, read signs and books, find what I need or talk with local people (including my in-laws), and that gives me a feeling of satisfaction. Instead of depending on English translations, I am free to move about and do what I want. I hope to do the same with Korean as well.

So, anyhow, don’t worry about being fluent in a language. Have fun and be functional instead. You can be very functional if you want to, but have fun doing it.

1 I also learned Thai and Vietnamese in college. I learned Vietnamese 2 years, and could speak pretty good for a while, though I’ve totally forgotten now. It helped when I was in Vietnam though.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Why Learning A Foreign Language Is Worth It”

  1. Well, let’s say that people speaking English as their native language are less boosted to learn foreign languages – you can almost travel the world with very few issues of communication. What I find disconcerting is when people not having English as their mothertongue don’t spend time trying to learn it, as we do in Italy. Our langue is spoken only in our country, and although we’re usually pretty good in making ourself understood with gestures and body language, it’s still absurd not being able to communicate properly with people living in other parts of the world. I have to say that now things are changing (slowly, but steadly) and new generations have a far better command of English language than in the past.

    Maybe I’m too off-topic, so I’m going to conclude agreeing with you on the importance of not giving up on the study of foreign languages, even if our level will always be just acceptable. I still have to work hard on my Japanese before reaching the functional point, but I’ll keep on committing myself to the task!


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