Foreign Languages: 10 benefits

Having  been immersed in several very different religions has given me insights that are often hard to communicate to folks who have either never embraced a religion as an adult or who have only embraced one religion. I feel the insights of knowing more than one very different language are similar. Having learned a few foreign languages in depth, I have always felt they have affected me in deep ways which are almost impossible to communicate with monolinguists or even with people who may know more than one language but who have never learned a second language as an adult. I hope this doesn’t sound snobby, because I feel the same phenomena can happen in many fields.

Today I read a short, fun article in PsyBlog which lists 10 “superb psychological advantages of learning another language” and offers links to research backing each point.  As my diagram below shows that I can only relate to four of these supposed benefits:


Here are my comments on the benefits I have definitely felt from learning a foreign tongue:

  • 3, 4 and 10: Little difference is dialects of English or slight accents of foreign speakers stand out incredibly clear to me now.  Choice of words and nuances are much more amplified now than when I was not fluent in other tongues.  All this has improved my own language.
  • 9: I remember this strongly when I reached a certain fluency in Urdu —  in contrast to German (a cousin of English) where I felt no real shift in “ways of seeing”.  But when I learned Japanese, the different views were dazzling.  These differences in “ways of seeing” are very hard to successfully communicate to monolinguists.

Question to readers:  How about you folks?  Have you had similar experiences moving between religions or languages?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Foreign Languages: 10 benefits

  1. Yeah, my mom is actually a French teacher (and is fluent in Italian) so I have some opinions on this. Studies by Stephen Pinker pretty much confirm that children under the age of 12 absorb language and can easily learn several if not many at once.

    So I was lucky that mom spoke to me in French. I was fluent by the time I was 16. Now, I took Spanish in middle school. I used to complain that I would get “confused” but looking back I was merely suffering from a phenomenon where (kids especially) will sometimes start speaking their second language while they’re in a classroom learning a third. It was annoying but not damaging.

    One day I met a girl from Italy and I realized I was able to converse a little with her (and read the Italian label on a product she had) even though I was never taught Italian.

    And btw Sabio I also read that about brain growth. Or rather, that RE learning a language as an adult can benefit cognitive health.

    I’ve slipped on keeping up with my languages but I’m relearning and have begun leaning a bit of Chinese too.

  2. Hey amelie: interesting background.

    One of the important points I was trying to make in this post was concerning New Ways of Seeing.

    And my contention is that this is best experience if you have BOTH of the following:

    (1) A language radically different from your mother tongue
    (2) Deep fluency

    What do you think of that intuition of mine?

  3. Good intuition Sabio.

    (1) I don’t have the knowledge to see from a perspective of “radically different from my mother tongue”. But maybe I’ll get a glimpse learning Chinese.

    (2) I think that’s right. Being fluent in another language gave me a hard to describe perspective that did seem to open worlds for me. Especially when I got to converse with people from other countries. I would equate it to travelling. I believe that well-travelled people are more insightful and able to see beyond a narrow scope.

  4. (1) Yeah, unfortunately, #2 demands deep fluency before that insight is gathered. It took me three years of Urdu (immersion) and four years of Japanese (deeper immersion) before that happened for me. I dabbled in other languages and never felt anything there.

    (2) Yeah, learning any language gives you the perspective of talkin’ do different folks, learning different things etc.. But that is not the “New Ways of Seeing” I was talking about. But those are incredibly valuable too. See, I just can’t verbalize it! 🙂

  5. rautakyy

    I think you are right, alltough I was very young when I first started to learn foreign languages. At the very least they have enabled me to aquire information I may never have stumbled upon in my native Finnish. My mothers tongue is very different from the Indo-European languages and it certainly offers and requires different perspective and even different ways of thinking just like any language. Even dialects of the same language may force a person to think a bit differently and cultural differences within the same language may be very much about completely different thinking. For example the western Finns value honesty so much, that the eastern Finns take such behaviour as blunt and unpolite.

    I have never been indoctrinated to any religion, so they are all equally absurd to me. Adult people taking obvious fairytale elements as for real. Mostly it appears to have a lot to do whith pure and simple ignorance, but when intelligent and educated people start to excuse for their uncritical thinking about their own religion, or ideology, it is both alarming and fascinating.

    Having never been an insider in any religion may have handicapped me understanding the thinking within them, but often enough it seems like I understand the reasons of that mentality better than religious people themselves, even though it is far more difficult for me to understand the mentality itself.

  6. @ rautakyy,
    Thanks for sharing the language stuff.
    Concerning religion, I’d be suspicious that you fool yourself as to your greater insight into the religious mind if you have never had that inclination. First, there are many different types of religious minds and second, “belief” (as I write here often) is a much smaller part then most never-religious atheists imagine.

  7. rautakyy

    @Sabio, yes that may very well be. It is easy to jump into wide generalizing conclusions, when one thinks one sees a causal link between some psychological needs and an irrational belief, that feeds those needs. And this applies wether we are talking about religion, some other sort of ideology, or anything else for that matter. But understanding, that it is an easy pitfall helps a bit from too easily doing so, yes?

  8. Ian

    Cool (sorry I’m catching up a bit late).

    I’ve never taken another language to real fluency, so I have no idea what insight I’m missing. However, there is something similar to be had in learning anything, surely. I get insights and changes in ways of thinking not related to anything technical when I learn a new programming language, or a new branch of math.

    As for learning new religions. I’ve only ever been a faithful member of one, but certainly understanding other religions (and, particularly understanding that beliefs are neither central, nor anything more than means to and end) was key to me leaving that one.

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