Learn a Second Language? Why Bother?

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“What would we be without language? Certainly not human as we know it.”

As a language teacher, a language learner, a speaker of more than one language, one who notices accents and nuances of speech, someone who is delighted by the intricacies of grammar and the mistakes learners make in translation, I was intrigued by a recent innovation, one not yet on the market but coming soon, called ‘ili.’

ili is a small device that you can wear around your neck like a pendant. It has a cool modern look like an IPod, but this little device is a language translator. With it, you can speak and out comes whatever language you have programmed it for. Instant translation. And it actually works!

At the moment ili can translate travel phrases in English, Japanese and Chinese, but other iterations are on the way. These will be sold first, not to individual customers, but to airports and other travel businesses like hotels, so they can rent or loan them out to their guests.

Does that mean language teachers will soon be out a job?

I don’t really think so. Then again, technology is developing at lightening speed. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil, head of Google’s Artificial Intelligence team, among others, is predicting that the era of “singularity” is coming. Kurzweil predicts that soon computers will not need us any more. They will build themselves. Singularity followers believe that eventually we ourselves will morph into machine-like beings, replacing parts that die or are damaged with new and unbreakable pieces:

The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations.

This isn’t being predicted for a thousand years from now, but rather in the next twenty to fifty years. It sounds like science fiction, but if Kurzweil, the head of Google’s AI engineering team believes it, perhaps we should consider the possibility.

So what? How does this relate to language learning and ili?

For me, at least, it begs the question: In the future, will we need to learn other languages? Will we even need more than one language on the planet? Maybe we won’t need spoken language at all. Perhaps, we will just think things to each other.

Language. What the hell is it anyway?

If you had to define the term language (and let’s stick with humans for the moment), what would you say (and no cheating by looking at a dictionary)? Go ahead, write a definition, but it might take you a while.

How about a simple definition? Language: A system of communication.

OK, but that’s pretty vague, right? A telephone is also a system of communication. And Morse Code. But those don’t define human language. 

How about a system of communication between two people in which there is speaking.That’s closer, but still pretty vague for this huge concept, and then what about sign language?

My point is that it’s extremely difficult to pin down a great definition of language. Try to come up with your own definition before you Google it. Even then, you will see that there is a difficulty putting this human trait into precise words.
Language is a concept that we all take for granted, yet it is difficult to define in all its spaciousness.

What would we be without language?

I would go so far as to say language is the very thing that makes us human and distinguishes us from other animals. It is the means by which we identify ourselves as a species, and as individuals. Without it, we can’t think thoughts? ‘Oh, the things we can think,’ as Dr. Seuss would say.

Trying to define and wrap our heads around the concept of language is akin to pondering the expansion of the universe. Scientists tell us that the universe is constantly expanding outward. But what is it expanding into?
Nothingness? How can it be expanding? Where is the edge of space?

Like the expansion of space, our definition of language keeps morphing and if Kurzweil is correct, then it will continue to morph beyond what we can even imagine now.

How (and why) do we learn language?

Noam Chomsky, sometimes called the father of modern linguistics, posed his theory about the deep structure and surface structure of language, and how as newborns, we all possess a language matrix which we use to make sense of the language in our environment. Chomsky’s early theory proposed that a child’s brain takes in the language of the environment and fits it into this language matrix.

His theory held rank at least until I was through with graduate school in linguistics, and Chomsky, among other linguists, continues to believe that the brain is pre-set for language learning.

We know that children learn language differently than adults; that the brain changes in its malleability over the course of childhood and adolescence, so that by the time we are adults, language learning is no longer automatic. After 13 or 14 years of age, we become less able to acquire a new language simply through playground osmosis. After adolescence, we must work at learning a language. It no longer gushes in while we play with our friends.

To Learn or Not to Learn a Foreign Language

I’ve always associated foreign languages with adventure, with new ideas, new foods, new ways of living and thinking, new places to visit.

In junior high school, I was allowed to choose a language to study: French, German or Spanish. I chose German. For six years, with my teachers, Herr Marring and Frau Something-or-other (I shamefully forget her name), I was a star student in all my German classes. I studied it again at university, for one year. Again, I was a straight A student. But can I speak German now?

Nein. Nichts. It’s all gone. Kaput!

The only German that has never left me is “Ich habe kein heft mit,” which is the very first line in the very first dialogue that I learned in my very first German class. On day 1 of 7th grade. Ich habe kein heft mit. “I don’t have my notebook.”

What a weird and crazy thing language is. Why can’t I speak this language I studied and excelled in for seven years? Seven years! Wasted time? Not really. I enjoyed studying German, but ich habe kein heft mit.

Language Number Two

My second go-around with a second language was a greater success story. In 1976, I signed up to be a United States Peace Corps Volunteer with a two-year assignment in Costa Rica. Now this is the way to learn a language! Complete immersion in a survival setting.

Did I want to eat? OK, but first I had to figure out how to shop at the open market, how to buy pots and pans, and order from a menu. When I needed to get somewhere? Ask for directions. Talk to my colleagues? I had to very quickly learn and habla español.

After two years in country I knew more Spanish than seven years of German had taught me. My need too learn was the key. 

Why bother learning a second language, especially if we will soon have devices like ili and be machine-like beings with computer chips in our brains?

This is easy. Because, studies have shown that learning a new language increases brain size and connectivity. Learning a second language keeps your brain ticking. Think Alzheimer’s prevention here. One study cites a delay of onset of dementia of 4.5 years for bilingual speakers. If learning another language can stave off dementia for several years, I’m all in.

But apart from its very real physical benefits, at least for me, studying a language brings a host of other small gifts. It’s like going on a small adventure without leaving home. It’s a reason to plan or dream about a trip to foreign lands. It’s a reason to read news from other places and learn about another culture. It opens your world and your mind and your heart.

So even though we can soon have our own little language translators slung around our necks when we travel, that can translate everything we say into an electronic voice understood by our listener, AND even though we may be heading to a future with one singular language, nothing can replace the wonder that comes from trying to wrap your mind around another set of sounds and another way of putting the world together.


Power to the Journey

Sign up now for future blog posts, and join me this summer in France as I blog my way through a French language school in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Better yet, check out my guide to the French Riviera, and have your own language experience in France! 

The Beginner’s Guide to the French Riviera: Stop Dreaming & Start Packing

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