Why is it Important to Learn Foreign Languages?
Ирина Пономарева (Irina Ponomareva)
Why indeed? The question that was never asked in the nineteenth century, because in those days cultured people took it for granted that languages were important, these days really requires an answer. Any language enthusiast has had to answer the eternal “why on Earth do you do this?” more than once, and the question is not asked kindly, but usually with a lot of scorn. Often that scorn is just a mask for jealousy, but many people really and truly don’t understand why spend time on such an activity.
Yet the answers seem to lie on the surface. English, at least, seems necessary for a successful career. For a top manager it’s even critical to have a very high level, since presentations and negotiations require absolute fluency and decent grammar. If you speak the language of your business partners in a hesitant, broken way or not at all, they will be put off and probably prefer to deal with your competitor instead, but if you have mastered their language so well that you could almost pass as a native speaker, you stand to gain, because everyone will appreciate your effort. People who do business with companies located in France will need fluent French for just the same reason, and with the swiftly growing Chinese market emerging in the East, Mandarin Chinese is now coming into fashion. But languages are not just about business.
If you are eager to see the beautiful architecture of Italy and Spain with your own eyes rather than on TV, learning the respective languages at least to the A2 level will make you a lot more independent when you travel to those countries. If you like making friends online, knowing even one foreign language will widen your scope greatly, and the more languages you master, the more friends you can find. You will be able to communicate on social networks, forums, text messengers and then - who knows - even visit your newly found friends and see their country in the process. But if you speak only one language, all these opportunities are not available for you.
If you enjoy reading books, languages can give you a really unique gift: the ability to read your favorite authors in the original. Any translation - even a very good one - always loses something. Agatha Christie, for example, just loved making some peculiarity of the English language the key to the solution of the crime - such as a double meaning of a certain word or two different ways of spelling it - and that is impossible to translate in most cases. Some of her contemporaries, for example, G.K. Chesterton, also sinned against the poor translators in a similar way, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become almost proverbial for its puns. All the books written by those famous authors have been translated into hundreds of languages, but a lot has been lost in translation.
It’s the same with movies. Different accents, slang, intentional mistakes introduced to give us an idea on the cultural background of the characters, examples of local humor - all this is nearly impossible to reproduce in another language, though the translators, of course, do their best. And whenever a song is translated, it usually becomes a completely different song, so if you are a fan of a certain famous singer or group, learning their language is a must; otherwise, the pleasure of listening to their greatest hits will be at least halved for you.
The list can go on and on, and all these aspects of the importance of languages, as I said, lie on the surface, but there is another side to language learning, less practical and mentioned far less often. My fellow language enthusiasts will bear me out, I am sure, but for the majority of my readers what I’m going to say may appear quite unexpected. Still, it is true.
Like any other hobby - probably more than many - languages not only make our life richer and more satisfactory, but they can even help us make it through whatever hard times fate has in store for us. People who ask an aspiring polyglot the usual question of what the heck for, usually assume that language learning is an arduous, thankless task, and people who choose it for a pastime must be masochistic. Nothing can be more wrong, of course. For those with a knack language learning is, in verity, one of the most enjoyable activities in the world, and challenges make it even more acutely pleasurable. That is why, as I mentioned at the start of the paragraph, languages can become our salvation when life gets tough, and for that I can vouch personally. I fully realize that it may not work this way for everyone, but you won’t know whether you are a born language nerd or not until you try. And sometimes the realization that language learning is our true vocation can come to us rather late in life.
Not everyone will become a polyglot: this requires a certain frame of mind and a lot of dedication. But every person who can manage their own native language can learn at least one or two foreign tongues. There are a lot of incentives to do it; I have already mentioned quite a few, but there are others. To revert back to the practical side of things, let me name just a few professions open for multilingual people: translation, interpreting, copywriting, tutoring (including online tutoring) and many more. Languages, thus, become your safety net, your umbrella for a rainy day, your reliable and stable source of income. And that - in the long run - is well worth the effort.