Three Reasons To Study Languages
Nearly every day, one of my students will ask me why I am forcing them to learn a language. Latin and Greek can be of course wearisome for new learners—but I have even had a student ask me why we are learning English, if we all already know it.
Each time these questions come up, I give one of the many good answers there are to such good questions.
Here are three reasons why we ought to study languages:
First, one must learn disciplinary vernacular before one can claim proficiency in that study. It is impossible to study medicine without medicinal terminology, law without its specialized jargon, or football without its calls and plays. Once one knows the “grammar” of a subject, then one can learn more about it and talk about it with others. And once the subject has been discussed among peers, then one can speak about it independently—but it all begins with a rudimentary grammar.
Second, learning languages gives one critical and analytical skills that will go beyond the classroom. In her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers famously said, “Even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.” Sayers argues that learning a foreign language helps one to think well, write well, and speak well.
If I may be allowed an anecdote, upon telling my dentist that I was a Latin teacher he remarked, “I do not remember a lot of Latin, but it did help me think thoroughly and understand the etymology of medicine.”
This benefit is not constrained to the realm of language—it goes beyond and helps one learn anything more easily. Learning a language does not just teach the language, but also teaches one how to think better.
Third, languages force one to think outside the scope of oneself. The study of any language is never constrained to simply the grammatical structure and memorization of vocabulary. The study always combines grammar and vocabulary of the language with its history, philosophy, art, poetry, culture, and much more. Learning a new language is learning something that is inherently foreign, at least to the learner. This process may be painful because it forces the student to look outside of themselves. However, these pains lead to growth.
There are many good reasons to learn a language. Even if a student already knows a language such as English, it is good to learn more so that one can think and express oneself more deeply. The harder a complex foreign language is to learn, the more one grows intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Learning languages benefits the whole person, from the basics of grammar to the depths of human experience.