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They absolutely should, but let’s encourage them a bit differently. After all, as we language lovers know, wording matters.
The advantages of knowing a second language are many: improved tolerance, decreased risk of dementia, better performance in other subject areas, and a slew of other social and cognitive benefits. In these tumultuous times, a recent article even hailed learning another language as “one of the most effective things you can do to take action,” because it helps you better understand your own culture and empathize with others. In fact, this recommendation to learn a language has been pouring in from many sources.
We should be careful not to sell these benefits as the benefits of bilingualism. While some of these benefits may require a certain level of proficiency or may have an expiration date—a 75-year-old just dabbling into German for the first time probably won’t be staving off cognitive decline—it’s never too late to be a little more tolerant or to see the world from a new perspective. That’s exactly why everyone should invest time in another language. It’s also exactly why we should stop telling people to simply learn another language.
My problem with that imperative is twofold. First, that wording implies that a language is something that can be acquired and mastered like the multiplication tables or the fifty state capitals. When it comes to languages, there’s always more to learn. Second, and more importantly, it can also be a daunting word choice for those starting at zero, for whom having “learned” a language is a long way away.
After 15 years of studying 3 different languages to varying degrees of proficiency, I can say with authority that you don’t have to master a language to reap its many benefits. Speaking at the C2 level is admirable, truly, but it’s not necessary to form a relationship with a stranger or see things from their perspective. Often it is in the moments when I’m struggling most with a language that I can feel that increased empathy or improved tolerance that we talk so much about in bilinguals.
It’s not until you try to ask if someone is hurt, but accidentally ask if they’re ice cream (“Esta herido?” vs. “Esta helado?” for the Spanish speakers among us), that you realize how hard it is not to be able to express yourself despite your best efforts. Learning a language to any level is hard, but there is value in the attempt.
Learning even one word, such as “Insha’Allah” in Arabic, can open a window into a new culture and way of thinking. This ubiquitous Arabic expression means “God willing” and indicates their belief that God’s will supersedes human will and that nothing will happen unless God wills it to be so. Even when making dinner plans, it’s common to be met with an “Insha’Allah” instead of an “I’ll see you there at 7.”
So, I propose we stop telling people they need to “learn a language”, because most of them will write that off before they even try. It’s akin to selling the benefits of running by telling someone to run a marathon. Start with a 5k first. Just because you’re not running 26.2 miles doesn’t mean it’s not good for your health.
We should encourage people to start small, to be a student of language. Strive for 15-20 minutes a day. Study just enough to order at a restaurant during your next vacation, or enough to say hello and greet a newcomer in your country. These small accomplishments not only provide immense satisfaction, but also start to unlock the many benefits of speaking another language and experiencing another culture. Those who set realistic goals are more likely to achieve them—and continue past them—than those who set out to simply “learn the language.”