Language Learning: Beyond the Purchase Decision


Learning a second language allows us to think in a whole new way. You may have a specific reason for learning a language — such as for work, to communicate with a family member, to learn about a specific culture — or it may be part of a larger project to develop your mind. If you fall into this latter category, you may not have yet decided what language you want to learn.

The usual suggestion: learn Spanish or Chinese. These have the most speakers and therefore present the most practical and obvious opportunities for using the language. We may even go further and suggest that learning these languages will also end up the most lucrative option, offering learners something like a job skill.

This kind of reasoning process resembles a purchase decision. Define a problem that getting a language will solve and then map the solution to the most appropriate language.

It’s like buying a computer. What are your software requirements?

I’d like to suggest some other ways of thinking about the language-learning process, however, before you make a decision. Here are two questions you might ask yourself.

1. In What Unexpected Ways Might Learning a Certain Language Change My Life?

The process of learning a language takes a considerable amount of time, and it will require you to alter a number of patterns in your life if you want to make progress in it.

In many cases, this will lead you to interests in a number of new things, some of which may have more importance to you than you might have initially imagined.

For example, ancillary interests might start opening up in certain topics in literature, history, management, or cuisine — things that you may never have given much consideration before. And these may end up having more importance to you than, say, the problem of acquiring a valuable work skill.

The above, of course, is the premise behind a liberal arts education. And like a liberal arts education, you may find you gain skills in parallel areas that you didn’t expect. For example, students of Latin often find themselves better able to deal with English grammar, while Japanese learners might learn new skills in inferring the unspoken intentions behind speech.

Learning a language will also, at some point, likely require you to alter your social patterns so that you can meet and speak with native speakers of the target language.

When thinking about a language to learn, you may imagine how you might speak it on a vacation, for example, or in a business context. But once you start learning, you’ll naturally look for other opportunities to use the language. Perhaps you’ll meet up with native speakers of the language on a Saturday afternoon, when prior to this you would have spent time with the group of friends who told you to learn Spanish or Chinese…

In all likelihood, the composition of connections on social media sites like Facebook will start to change. This in turn may also alter the kind of things you see daily on your feed, leading to new thoughts or ways of seeing things. All of this will happen at a level perhaps more subtle than you might have imagined ahead of time.

And so, it’s worth asking yourself, not just how a certain language will allow me to solve some problem, but what impact will learning a language have over all parts of my life? And in what ways might these unexpected changes benefit me?

2. What would routinization mean?

I plan to address the concept of “routinization” — and how it’s a better way to understand language learning than terms like “fluency” and “bilingualism” — in a future article. But right now simply imagine what it might mean for a language — or parts of a language — to become routine parts of your daily life.

To play with the technology metaphor, consider email. For most people, it’s become more embedded in daily life than sleep or meal patterns. As such it’s both indispensable and completely unremarkable.

When we imagine learning a language, we often imagine ourselves using it in certain exciting or important situations. Perhaps we imagine ourselves using it to meet interesting new people, or nailing a job interview.

But in addition to thinking about these scenarios, you might imagine what aspects of language learning are really going to become routine for you. Are you really in a situation that will allow you to leverage the language to interact with the culture? How much will this require you to reorganize your habits and behaviors? Or will you just be using it to order food at the local restaurant?

How would your life look if you used Japanese in the most boring parts of your daily routine? Or Spanish? Or Persian? Which scenarios are most realistic? Which are most attractive?

Thinking about the routinization of language ability is similar in some ways to thinking about how learning a language will change your life, but it places more emphasis on the end game. What kind of person will you be when your language study starts reaching its ultimate goals?

Beyond Problems, Beyond Languages

Thinking about how to solve a problem may lead you to exaggerate the importance of the problem. The above questions will help you think more about the opportunities that a new language will afford you.

They can be applied, not just to language learning, but to any skill that you may be thinking about trying to acquire. And this kind of self-reflection, undertaken at various points during the learning process, will help you develop new perspectives on who you really are.