24 years old when I first began thinking and speaking in a
foreign language. It was like being released from prison.
I saw my cell door swinging open and my mind flying free.
That was over 40 years ago, but the picture is as fresh now
as if it had just happened."
I am a linguistic iconoclast. Throughout my life (I
am now in my seventh decade), I have heard the mantra that
learning a foreign language gives you invaluable insights
into the cultures of the people who speak it. I don't believe
In addition to my native English (I grew up in Southern
California), I have become fluent in two other languages and
have a good working knowledge of three more. I doubt that
all this effort has given me any insights into the cultures
of the people who speak these languages. At least no insights
that I couldn't have acquired more easily in 30 - 60 minutes
by reading a well-written essay or in a few hours by attending
well-crafted social-cultural lectures.
contrast, I have acquired a deeper understanding of
science. What does science have to do with language?
Actually, very little. But it has a lot to do with flexible
thinking. And this is where science and language learning
Contrary to the common belief, science is not about
certainty but rather uncertainty. Good scientists are
always looking for what has been overlooked, i.e. they
are always searching for surprises and welcome them
when they happen. They know that moment we believe a
phenomenon is "natural" and must be that way,
or that it is "unnatural" and cannot be that
way, we are either heading for trouble or missing out
on something important.
Albert Einstein investigated the "unnatural" belief
that a beam of light in space must always have the same velocity;
other scientists had spent decades trying to disprove this.
He wanted to see where this "unnatural" might lead.
In fact, it lead to e = mc², the formula for atomic energy,
and transformed the world.
It is not necessary to be a genius like Einstein (who spoke
German, French, Italian and English), or even a scientist
at all, in order to profit from the mind-stretching benefits
of learning foreign languages. In our daily lives we all make
assumptions about how the world works; often we are not even
aware that we are making them. And that's the danger. If we
are insensitive to our assumptions, we are almost certain
to end up believing things that aren't true and refusing to
believe things that are true. Learning languages can help
correct this parlous state of affairs. How? Quite simply,
because nowhere else are our assumptions more rapidly and
forcefully challenged by other assumptions about what is or
isn't natural that are equally valid.
Here are some simple examples.
1. Trailing Adjectives
It is "natural" to put adjectives before a noun,
e.g. "an unidentified flying object". Well not really.
Many languages put adjectives after the noun, e.g. "un
objet volant non-identifie". You could argue the "naturalness"
of these conflicting practices both ways. In English, we prefer
to describe something before identifying what it is, as if
to build up the suspense. In French, they prefer to identify
what it is first and describe it afterwards. Who is right?
2. Optional Pronouns
English speakers take it for granted that constructing a sentence
requires a subject and a verb. The subject can be either a
proper noun (John talks) or a pronoun (He talks). If you have
any acquaintance with Spanish, you know that in this language
the pronoun is usually not necessary. You would still say
"Juan habla" (John talks); however, in most cases
you would simply say "Habla" for "He talks".
In fact, if you use a pronoun where it isn't required ("El
habla"), you would be committing a serious error.
3. No Distinction between Male and Female
English speakers learning French are often puzzled by the
language's apparent inability to distinguish between male
and female. For example, "This is his book" and
"This is her book" in French are both "C'est
son livre". The possessive adjective "son"
means both "his" and "her". If it is absolutely
necessary to distinguish between "his" book and
"her" book, there is a way of doing so. However,
it is employed only when absolutely necessary.
But isn't it always absolutely necessary? It seems so unnatural
not to specify whether the book's owner is male or female.
Isn't this fundamental information?
It may seem so, but it isn't. By the same logic, it should
be fundamental information to distinguish between male and
female when saying "This is their book", but we
don't. "This is your book" can be either male, female,
or both, but we never specify. Even "This is my book"
can be either male or female, but again we don't specify.
Having grown up speaking only English, you probably have never
noticed this inconsistency in the language. Neither had I.
I simply knew that is was "natural" to distinguish
between his and her book, until a Frenchman asked me why.
I couldn't tell him.
4. Inclusive and Explicit Forms of "You"
In English, we have only one way of saying "you",
which covers all situations. Many languages have several ways
of saying it, notably the "formal you" and the "familiar
you". English used to have a familiar "you"
(thou), but it has essentially disappeared. But in French
and Spanish, for example, it is still widely used, making
speakers of these languages feel that English is somehow "incomplete".
Spanish speakers are particularly poorly served. In their
language, not only do they have a formal and familiar "you",
they have them both in the singular and plural. In other words,
in Spanish there are four ways of saying "you":
formal singular (one person), familiar singular (one person),
formal plural (several persons), familiar plural (several
persons). For Spanish speakers, having these four options
is natural and necessary; not having them in English is unnatural
5. Exclusive and Explicit Verb Forms
English has very few verb forms. For example, in the present
tense we say "I cook", "You cook", "He
cooks", "She cooks", "We cook", "They
cook". In other words, there are only two forms of the
verb, "cook" and "cooks", depending on
whom we are talking about. In the past tense English has only
one verb form, e.g. "I cooked", "You cooked",
"He cooked", "She cooked", "We cooked",
"They cooked". Likewise in the future tense; everyone
In other languages this is quite unnatural, because they use
distinct forms for each different person being talked about.
For example, in French and Spanish "I" is associated
with one verb form, "you" with a distinctly different
verb form, "we" with yet another form, etc. And
of course there are distinct verb forms for the "familiar
you" and "formal you" (singular in French,
and both singular and plural in Spanish). But doesn't all
these differences make other languages significantly more
complex than English? Yes, indeed. However, they also make
them significantly more precise. For speakers of these languages,
it is crucially important to make these distinctions, because
this is how their minds have been trained to work. Just as
it is crucially important for English speakers to distinguish
between "his" and "hers", because this
is how our minds have been trained to work.
Examples of these different ways of doing things from one
language to another are endless. Each time we encounter them
our mind opens up a little bit more, because the unexpressed
assumptions we all carry around with us are continually being
Growing up in California, I used to be strongly opposed
to language learning because it seemed so difficult and
pointless. I have since changed my mind. I now strongly advocate
language learning. Not because knowing a foreign language
teaches us very much about others, but because it teaches
us so much about ourselves. Accepting that language learning
is more about mind expansion than culture implies that language
teaching must be fundamentally reformed. I live in Belgium,
where speaking two or three languages is the norm rather than
the exception. This is generally true throughout Europe. In
these countries, teaching languages in the belief that people
will actually use them makes sense. The mind-expanding aspects
of the effort come along as a welcomed bonus.
However for English speakers in general, and Americans
in particular, it is almost impossible to learn to speak foreign
languages because it is so difficult to practice them outside
of the classroom. Here, the mind-expanding aspects of language
learning should be the primary objective, and courses designed
and taught in consequence. If this were done, I believe that
the American fear - and dare I say loathing of other languages
could be reversed. The schools would lay down the foundations
of a language without trying to force students into the hopeless
and demoralizing task of trying to speak it.
With this foundation firmly in place, when a person traveled
to an area where that language is spoken, he would be able
to rapidly turn his passive knowledge into active use. Even
better, even if he traveled to an area with a totally different
language, he would understand how languages work and therefore
be ready to learn the new language rapidly and without fear.
Finally, the general aversion and again dare I say loathing
many monolingual English speakers have of science and technology
might also moderate. A mind made flexible by language learning
would find it much easier to grasp and appreciate scientific
principles than one still imprisoned in single-language rigidity.
In an age dominated by science and technology, surely this
would be a benefit of ineffable importance.