30 Mrz 2017
Why do we study foreign languages?

The obvious reason why we study foreign languages is to be able to communicate with others. But, according to Noam Chomsky, an authority in modern linguistics, language really originated to allow Homo sapiens to think independently and not merely plan the next successful hunt with other tribe members.


It is possible to have thoughts with images, sensations, sounds, and feelings without the use of a language, particularly during the first years of our lives, and even due to physical impairment. Maybe, even animals do “think” in the most basic sense of the word! Nevertheless, more complex abstract thought processes are made by people with the aid of a language. Language as an instrument of expression helps us be aware that we are thinking and that we exist. That is such a beautiful thought!

Even today, we spend much more time thinking than speaking, and in that order — at least that is what our parents and teachers taught us we should do. Still, it is an intriguing idea to study languages for reasons other than mere human interaction. Some of these newly discovered benefits include longer life periods without Alzheimer’s, increases in our creativity and, not least, improvements in the way each of us think – even in our own first language.


The practical power of verbal abstraction in our daily lives is not confined to the expression of ideas, but also a category of concrete things for which we would normally use words. For example, if we are in a country where we do not speak the language, it is easy to simply gesticulate and convey in a meaningful way that we are hungry and are looking for a restaurant. But it would look silly to attempt to use gestures to ask locals for the nearest WC. In this instance, all we need to solve our predicament is just to be able to say one single word in the foreign language.

It is well known that the study of languages expands our horizons and opens up another mindset through which we perceive and make sense of the world. We can learn new concepts closely connected to a specific language that defy translation into our own language. “Zeitgeist”, “Weltanschauung” or „Übermensch“ are classic examples of words from German that have been incorporated into other languages unchanged.

Equally promising is the possibility that studying a new language can improve the quality of our thoughts – it could help us become even “smarter”. That is make us able to think in another language — and not merely make translations in our own — which is a remarkable mental feat combining new words in a grammatical correct and meaningful way.

Even the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recognized that the great thoughts of philosophy are ultimately questions about the nature of language, its use and its intrinsic limitations in helping us deal with the world of the mind.


Lastly, I believe that we also need to study our own language – and any other language for that matter — because the very act of starting to formulate our ideas orally helps us think, structure and refine what we are trying to express even more clearly. This process, of course, does not gives us a license to speak without having put much thought into our words. Rather, it can be taken as an additional reason to rehearse our chain of thoughts privately before they make a public entrance.

Yes, the study of languages can help us think and communicate with others — even ourselves.

Why do you study other languages?


About the author: Carlos Aleson is the director of i-diom, an institute specialized in language and communications training in Austria.