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What’s the use of learning a language?

By Maria Scott, Associate Professor of French

Mastery of a second or third language can offer a huge advantage in life. Having an extra language at your disposal can be a passport to an interesting and well-paid job, to rewarding travels, and even to significant parts of your life spent in a foreign country. We know that language graduates are prized by employers, particularly if they have spent a year abroad during their studies, thereby demonstrating adaptability, resilience, and independence. We know that a degree in languages is a particular kind of Arts and Humanities degree that carries an employability turbo-charge: it teaches not just the very prized skill that is fluency in a foreign language, and the communicative and intercultural competence that accompanies this fluency, but also critical and analytical skills that are honed through intensive forays into disciplines such as literature, film, philosophy, linguistics, and art history. I have taught the French language to people who are now recognised specialists in French cinema, gender studies, Franco-Algerian history and literature, and contemporary French politics; these were all subjects that the individuals in question discovered as part of their undergraduate degrees in French. I have also taught French to students who went on to work in business, marketing, tourism, translation and interpreting, primary and secondary school teaching, and the law. These are only the graduates I know about.

However, this piece is not about the employability value of a degree in languages, but about a different kind of value, which is all the more precious because it is harder to pin down.

A few years ago, on international Francophonie day, I volunteered to visit my children’s primary school to speak about French language and culture and what they have meant to me. I went from classroom to classroom and talked about how learning French meant that I could now finally understand the television news in French, after having spent many frustrated evenings, many years ago, as a teenager straining, with my dad, to catch words and make sense of what was being said. The French language had taken me to Paris, where I had worked in a fast-food kitchen as a student one summer, and where I had later taught English at a university for nine months. The French language had also brought some dear friends into my life, both the living kind and the other kind, often long gone, that I got to know only through their writing. And learning the language had also given me a career, because I had been a university teacher of French for many years. With each of the class groups, I finished by saying that learning a language was like having an extension built in your brain: it gives you new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. I presented this as a self-evident truth; this truth was so much a part of my own lived experience that I had never really taken it out and examined it. But I remember the face of one Year 4 girl, clouded by concentration. She was trying very hard to understand. I asked if anyone had a question, and she raised her hand. She asked me if I could explain what I meant about the brain extension. I don’t remember what I answered. I do remember thinking that I needed to work on how to present this idea.

So here is my attempt to come up with an improved answer, in honour of that eight-year-old girl.

When we look at a potato, most of us will just see a potato. Most of us will know we can boil it, mash it, chip it, or roast it. If we know a lot about potatoes, we might be able to tell if it’s a King Edward or a Kerr’s Pink or a Jersey Royal. It probably wouldn’t occur to us, though, unless we have learned at least a smidgen of French, to think of a potato as an apple of the earth, une pomme de terre. And once we start to look at a potato as an earth apple, it becomes a little bit different from what we used to think it was. It might even occur to us that instead of mashing it or roasting it we could do as the French do, and slice it up and make a creamy gratin out of it, or dice it and sautée it in a frying pan with garlic and rosemary. Now imagine you have a whole other language in your head, and not just the French word for ‘spud’ and all the recipes that go with it. Think about how much richer your encounter with the world could be, how much more exciting and tasty, when you know more than one word for things, and more than one way to think about them.

I might tell the eight-year-old girl that sometimes it can be quite hard to change your ways of thinking about things. I remember crying bitter tears as a school exchange student in France, when on Easter Sunday, having been promised a chocolate egg by my host family, I was given something very different from what I had expected: a dark chocolate confection wrapped in impressively shiny layers, with, instead of sweets, a liqueur inside it that was deeply offensive to my fifteen-year-old taste buds. I’m afraid I had no idea how lucky I was. Sometimes we just want the thing we know and love, and don’t want the thing that’s different and unfamiliar. On the other hand, my enduring love of French mustard dates back to that exchange; I will always remember the first time I discovered it, around the table with my host family, conversation flying around too quickly for me to catch it, but that didn’t matter, because I was lost in a condiment-hazed world of my own. It was also around that dinner table, if memory serves, that I learned the phrase un ange passe, which means ‘an angel is passing’. This can be a very useful thing to say if you are ever in the middle of an animated conversation and an inexplicable silence suddenly descends. An angel strolling by is as good an explanation as any for such moments, and the idea tends to make people smile. We all need phrases like that sometimes.

Pierre Bonnard, Le Repas des enfants, 1895. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see one theme has emerged quite strongly in my argument for the brain-extending value of language learning: food. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that the French word for language (la langue) is also the French word for ‘tongue’; tongues are, after all, involved in tasting and eating as well as speaking. Also, as anyone who has ever visited the meat aisle of a French supermarket will attest, tongues (and brains) are themselves eminently edible in France. Maybe there is not, in the end, a big difference between learning a new tongue and learning to appreciate new food. Just as food is a sort of language, language is a sort of food. In fact, my favourite French poet, Charles Baudelaire, wrote about how the whole world was a kind of dictionary, made up of words and signs and images, which could be munched up and digested and transformed by the imagination. He was not wrong about much.

On the subject of things oral, a couple of years ago, at a talk with sixth-formers in the local comprehensive school, I was asked by one student why she should study a language when her actual plan was to become a dentist. What good would French, for example, ever be to her? Again, this question left me thinking afterwards. It is of course quite possible that the young woman in question would never have any practical need of a language other than English, and quite possible that she would never have any wish or need to relocate to another country. She might never encounter a client unable to communicate in English. It would probably not help her in any very concrete way to know that people who are ambitious are said, in French, to have long teeth, and that people with hard teeth are afflicted with what we, in English, would call a sharp tongue. She does not need to know that the roof of the mouth is un palais (which also means ‘palace’), or that a tongue, as we have established, is une langue. She may never need to know the various words and phrases in French that involve the French word for ‘mouth’, such as bouche bée (mouth agape) or faire la fine bouche (to turn your nose up at something), or bouche à oreille (word of mouth).  She may never need to know that when a piece of news is on everyone’s lips in English, it’s already in everyone’s mouths in French (dans la bouche de tout le monde). And hopefully, for the sake of her clients, she will never have cause to ponder the mysterious reasons why the word bouche is contained in le boucher and la boucherie (the butcher’s). But being able to stay up to date with developments in the French-speaking dental world, or having the interest to read about how improvements in French dentristy caused a ‘smile revolution’ (Colin Jones) in the eighteenth century, or about why backstreet dentists in nineteenth-century France might have wanted to pay you for your teeth – well, these things would certainly help to liven up a routine check-up.

Learning a language has huge employability value, but it has another form of value too. I think my father knew this, even as he watched the French news programmes with my teenage self in a spirit of shared frustration. He knew at the time that he didn’t have long to live, so improving his French had little obvious use value, but he was absolutely intent on continuing to learn. My best answer (for now) to any young person wondering about the value of learning a language, even when she does not (for now) intend to make languages central to her choice of career, is that having another language up your sleeve can open up opportunities that you never knew were there, and can make life significantly more interesting and more fun. If nothing else, you may discover that studying a language can build a kind of extension in your brain. And who couldn’t do with a brain extension?


1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your piece “What’s the use of learning a language”. I was born in England and was fortunate that foreign languages were required study in high school at that time. Even in rural Lincolnshire. I did struggle with basic French and Latin, never excelling. Due to the death of my mother I moved to the US at age 13 and had to learn American English. An entirely different language. Anyway, I ended up studying Spanish language and culture in college and took a year abroad in Spain. My family didn’t see much practical value in that year and my degree and frankly neither did I for quite some time. Eventually I went on to study nursing and was pleased to find my background in Latin very helpful. I currently work as an oncology nurse practitioner in Florida and use my Spanish daily in practice. As far as I know I am the only none native, Spanish speaking nurse practitioner with the local practice. Life often takes on circuitous journeys. Every day I feel gratitude for my foreign language education and experience. Thank you for expressing my own sentiments so ably.

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