The benefits of learning new languages, Part 1: Why take a language?

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Kwékwé skennenkó: wa ken? Danielle ióntiats. Ok nì: se?

I said, “Hello how are you?  My name is Danielle.  And yours?” in Mohawk.

Mohawk is the fifth language I am in the process of learning.  I have completed classes in French, Spanish and Ojibwe as well as learned some German from my family.

Unfortunately, my fluency in all of these languages is poor at best: my French is limited to food packaging and episodes of  Telefrançais.   Although I could once read Harry Potter in Spanish, my knowledge of the language has deteriorated.

You could say I am really interested in languages, but I don’t know if I see it that way.  If that statement were true, I would have much better speaking, and certainly reading, abilities in both Spanish and French.

Ojibwe and Mohawk fulfil some of the degree requirements for my Indigenous Studies minor. I was wary of taking Mohawk because I struggled so much with Ojibwe – it is not an easy language to learn since it is very different than English .

I have heard that there are many benefits to learning additional languages, and wanted to find out why so many experts suggest this.  I asked McMaster University French and communication students professor Alexandre Sévigny about his opinions on learning additional languages.

Q. What are the benefits of learning a second or additional language? How can this help students academically or in their future careers?

A. The advantages of taking a second language are many.

First, every language you learn is a window onto a new cultural landscape. When you hear and read the world in a second language, the same scenes, the same family relationships are vibrant in new colours. That is why it is such a tragedy when a language is extinguished, when the last speaker passes.

Second, when you learn a second language, you learn how to interact with a new group of people. A whole new set of social possibilities are open to you.

You can make new friends, engage new people politically or do business with them – all in a fashion that makes you feel and seem authentic to their way of living.

To address someone in his or her own language is profound sign of respect. It shows you are willing to step out of the bounds of your own identity, to make yourself vulnerable and communicate with someone else on his or her own terms, rather than on your own.

Third, it has been demonstrated that speaking several languages has cognitive and neurological health benefits.

While much of this sort of science is preliminary and maybe even shaky, some studies have suggested that practising multilingual people suffer less from things like Alzheimers and dementia.

Fourth, there is the academic asset of being able to read the thinkers whose theories you are studying in the original. No matter how good the translator is, there are nuances and subtleties in the original text that can never be transferred through a translation. Every text is much greater than the sum of its sentences and paragraphs. It has a tone, a feel, a music that can’t be replicated.

Roland Barthes, the famous French semiotician captured this very well when he spoke of “the rustle of language,” like the rustle of leaves in the trees, when a wind or breeze passes through the forest. That sound is unique and experiencing it in its forest of origin is unlike hearing it another place. The roll of the land, the height of the trees, the density of the leaves all make for sound that, while it resembles the wind in the trees in any other forest, is unique and beautiful in its little differences.

Language is the same – different languages permit the rustle of different winds of meaning and culture. Each language is unique.

Next: The benefits of learning new languages, Part 2: The business world

Photo credit: Danielle Lorenz
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