Why study languages?

Why study languages? - Languages and cultures

Why study languages?

One of the world’s renowned, if not leading, linguists Professor Google Translate and her team of colleagues were presented with a paragraph of text in English, and given a while to consider it from their state-of-the-art language laboratory somewhere in cyber-space. The team mulled over each word in turn, from a vast resource of 100+ languages, living and dead, passing the text – like a hot potato – from one language to the next.  As the words reached some of the languages taught at SOAS, including: Afrikaans, Swahili, Yoruba; Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan; Japanese and Korean; Arabic, Persian and Turkish; Hindi, Nepali and Sanskrit; Burmese, Indonesian and Thai, not to mention French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish – anticipation grew. How would the paragraph emerge at the end of the long chain of translation?

This was the original paragraph in English:

Thank you for inviting us to lunch. We wanted to run a few ideas past you.  I don’t know about either of you but I could eat a horse right now. Sorry, Ken, I forgot you’re a vegetarian!

 And, after passing through 19 of those languages, this is what emerged:

I forgot that the horses were not invited to dinner. We can. I do not know about this incident, like a little hope, but even there!

Why study languages? Find out from the horse's mouth
You heard it from the Horse’s mouth (Photo:  Pahalgam (c) flowcomm via Flickr)

What language translation system, however sophisticated, can replace human beings? This one, having by-passed Tibetan and Sanskrit, made a fair shot of it. However, as language learners will know, translation involves more than replacing one word for another. Machines are literal; they are unlikely to pick up nuance: they don’t understand irony, for example, and might struggle with figurative speech. If they answer back, it is a pre-programmed answer, not deviating from a script.

In other words, a top reason to study other languages is that no machine – yet – can do it for us; humans still learn languages best! No wonder the United Nations, which uses six official languages in UN meetings (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), employs real human beings to provide a simultaneous translation service.

People’s motivation to study languages varies, from practical, work-related, to social or cultural reasons.  It might include, for example, to:

  • Communicate with a pen-friend, partner, or friends;
  • enjoy films and music from other traditions than your own;
  • read books, plays, poetry in the original;
  • re-engage with your mother-tongue;
  • live and work in another country, and experience another culture; or
  • hold your own in a business discussion, without needing an interpreter

Graphics, or the international language of signs, go some way to bridging the gap between languages but how much more rewarding it is to be able to read for yourself a menu in a restaurant, say, or the words in a TV news story, even to understand what a monster’s face is telling you on a mountain path in Japan. Even more rewarding is to study a language in depth. By immersing yourself in other cultures it will open your mind to different ways of seeing the world.

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