Why Learn Another Language?
What Motivates Us to Learn Another Language?
There are many reasons we might decide to try to learn another language. We might need the language for study or work purposes, to communicate with family or friends or to connect with the culture of the country where the language is spoken. Ultimately, the goal is one and the same, to speak and understand the language as well as we can.
In my own case, I am motivated initially just by the possibility of accessing a new culture, with all that this can bring me in terms of learning about another country, its people and its history. This kind of motivation just suits my situation as a learner not living where the language is spoken.
Let’s take a language like Italian for example and consider the ways in which I might enjoy Italian while living in Vancouver. I could go to an Italian restaurant and chat with the waiter in Italian, but that really wouldn’t happen very often. I don’t know many Italians in Vancouver with whom I could carry on conversations in Italian, so that is also not a practical motivation. Although I could try to connect with people via Skype, I have often found it difficult to find language partners who share my interests, and with whom I want to spend hours in conversation. As a result, my opportunities to use the language here in Vancouver are quite limited.
On the other hand, it is quite easy for me to arrange to read a book in Italian. I can buy or borrow a paper book or download an e-book, which I can import into LingQ in order to learn new words and phrases. I can watch movies, which I can find online in Italian or other languages on sites like Filmdoo. I can listen to audiobooks in Italian from sites like Il Narratore, where audiobooks and matching e-books are available for download. If I am interested in food, I can listen to podcasts like Il Gastronauta from Italy. For more serious fare on history, culture and politics I can download podcasts from the Italian national radio RAI’s outstanding series Alle otto della sera. I can listen in the car or while doing chores around the house. There are endless opportunities for me to interact with things Italian, and learn about that country and its culture.
This is obviously not only true for Italian, but for many languages. The desire to read Russian books was a big part of my motivation to learn Russian. I have literally hundreds of books and CDs at home in languages such as Chinese, Russian, Czech, Spanish, French, German and more. I have found a wide range of internet resources for these and other languages, which have enabled me to enrich my life in the process of learning and improving in these languages. I have catalogued many of these resources on my computer so that when I feel like listening to or reading something in a language, these resources are readily available.
Unless I live where the language is spoken, the amount of time that I can spend listening and reading far exceeds the amount of time that I am able to spend speaking in the language that I am learning. I don’t think that’s unusual. As a result, that is what I am mostly motivated to do.
Of course I also want to be able to speak these languages but I know from experience that these journeys in the language, based on reading, listening and using LingQ to increase my vocabulary of words and phrases, will eventually enable me to speak, and speak well.
Some people are motivated to learn another language in order to be able to use it on their next visit to Mexico or Italy on holiday. Their motivation is to just to speak, to say a few things in the language. That is quite understandable. However, it has been my experience that when I try to learn a language just in order to say a few things, since I have so few real opportunities to do so I don’t do very well. I find that I don’t really understand what people are saying, and struggle to say much beyond a few phrases.
Perhaps the majority of people are motivated to learn another language because they need the language for academic or professional reasons. These learners usually spend a lot of time in classrooms and study the language with great determination, often focusing on preparing for language proficiency tests, and studying grammar rules and vocabulary lists.
Even though these learners put in more time and effort than the tourist planning to visit Mexico or Italy, the results are often disappointing. If these learners are able to acquire a more intrinsic sense of motivation, an interest in the culture and the kinds of things that inspire them to learn languages, they are more likely to achieve their more “practical” goals of achieving a high level in the language that they need for their tests and professional purposes.
I have always found that when I am able to acquire a familiarity with the language through my interests, and gain different perspectives on the culture, current events, history or even cooking, I connect more strongly with the language. As a result, not only my listening comprehension and reading skills improve, but my speaking ability develops very quickly once I have the opportunity to use the language. Usually having invested so much time on my input activities, when I go to speak I have a much better background from which to work on my speaking skills. More and more of my accumulated passive vocabulary becomes activated the more I speak. While I struggle at first, I progress very quickly.
I don’t think it is possible to do well in language learning without committing to going beyond the language itself. We need to use the language to take side trips into the culture, into whatever interests us, not just what is in the text book. This makes the language learning journey more enjoyable, and ensures that we reach our goals.
Why did you start to learn another language? I look forward to discussion in the comments.