Most people learn languages for a practical reason, of which there are as many as languages on this planet. Some learn a language for love, some to visit another country and communicate with the locals, others in the hope of a better future. But what drives a person to learn multiple languages? Moreover, why would someone learn a language they don’t even need?
I’ve often asked myself that question. I’ve learned a fair amount out of necessity since I didn’t have a choice in school. But others I learned completely voluntarily. Funny enough, I speak those much better than the ones I had to learn.
In this post, I want to put put together what drives me personally to keep coming back to learning languages, despite the fact that I quit from time to time. Some people are true language nerds and obsess over linguistics or literature. Some learn for actual tangible benefits like being able to meet women. I’ll talk about neither of those, but instead focus on the underlying psychology that keeps you hooked.
#1 You feel intellectually inferior
I consider myself significantly above average in terms of intelligence. Maybe not top 1% or even 5% but top 10-15% for sure. Normal conversations with normal people bore me very quickly and with age this is only getting worse. Teaching your own native language makes it even worse. Not only are you (at least in your own opinion) more intelligent than most people, but now you cannot even talk to someone at eye level.
In a foreign language though, that is different. No matter how well you speak it, it’s virtually impossible to speak a language you acquired in your adulthood as well as someone that is native in this language. In fact, there are studies that prove this.
That, in turn, means you’re now set back to the intellectual level of a teenager (or worse). Isn’t that nice for a challenge? All of a sudden, even banal conversations like talking about your favorite movie or the best places to travel becomes intriguing and challenging. I still want to have good command of the language, a very basic conversation is not the reason why I’ll start learning one. But even at the point where you are conversational to fluent, you cannot articulate yourself as well as an intelligent native speaker. In other words, it feels good to be a bit dumber at times.
#2 It’s challenging
This is a pretty obvious point, I suppose. There’s the old saying “think of something that’s difficult for others but easy for you, that’s your talent”. I’m still not sure how true that is, but learning a new language has been, at least in adulthood, comparatively easy for me.
That’s not to say that I pick it up in a few days or weeks and I’m good to go. As any other person, it takes me months and years to get to where I want. But this challenge appeals to me, and even more so, when you achieve the level where you’re able to understand “inside jokes” or native speaker slang that makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a foreign culture. It’s fascinating and rewarding at the same time. Plus, it’s an intellectual challenge that you can always return to.
#3 I feel a sense of accomplishment
Speaking of rewarding, the sense of accomplishment play a big part as well. Learning a new language to a high degree feels like you’ve just unlocked a new country or region on the world map and everything that comes with it. A whole new batch of knowledge, experiences and relationships has just been made available to you that you didn’t have access to beforehand.
I make a point of passing an exam that proves my fluency as a sort of milestone that I have passed. But, of course, you feel a sense of accomplishment before that as well once you start understand more and more of what native speakers are saying, once you understand little intricacies of the language, understand their jokes and so forth. It’s a constant and never-ending feedback loop.
#4 There’s no perfection
Adding to the last thought, it’s a feedback loop that you can never escape from and never master. There is no perfection in speaking since it’s an art not a science. I personally “tick off” a language at the C1 level, because you’re fluent enough at this point but the extra squeeze isn’t worth the juice in terms of effort and reward. But even beyond that, you never “get there”. Frankly, even in your own language you aren’t perfect.
This trifecta of challenge, accomplishment and constantly moving goalposts keeps my mind busy and prevents me from getting bored. Thanks to my natural affinity to it, I don’t get frustrated either because I know the reward is worth the effort. The latter is probably also a big reason why I found transferring this thought process to building another skill difficult.Is the reward always going to be worth the effort?
#5 You train your mind to think in different ways
Some people prefer to only communicate in their own language because it gives them maximum control over what they’re saying. I can acknowledge that, however, I’d argue that you learn much more from opening up your mind to a different way of communicating and, hence, a different way of thinking.
Take a simple example. English is structured in a simple and straightforward way, which is why many people find it easy to learn, at least to a decent level. Its word order always follows the same subject-verb-object structure. For this reason, people from anglophone countries, especially the US, are very straightforward in their thinking.
German has, in part, a more complicated sentence structure which sometimes puts the verb at the end of the sentence. That requires you as the speaker to know what you want to express before you get to the end of your sentence. If you think about it mid-sentence, it’s inevitably come out understandable but wrong. This clear but non-intuitive rule is pretty in sync with how Germans are, isn’t it? Complicated but orderly.
Russian, on the other hand, is very flexible in its sentence structure, which can lead to many different nuances that can be expressed. That sounds easy at first, but it results in the language being very convoluted when spoken at a high level. Just like Russia is convoluted and fucking impossible to understand, isn’t it? We all love our “only in Russia” memes.
This only goes to say that adapting your brain to mastering these things and thinking in different ways improves your thought process and your understanding of other people. This is at least the case for me although I can’t say that I found polyglots to have blistering social and soft skills.
#6 It teaches you consistency (or not)
Ah, the good old rule of compounding interest. It’s very true in language learning as well. A bit every day beats a lot every once in a while and eventually adds up.
Unfortunately, I’ve found this a difficult one to transfer to other spheres even though the benefits are crystal clear. You’d think that someone who knows it takes a few years to learn a difficult language, but who also knows it’s going to be worth it, would have no trouble adapting that concept to other skills. Well…
The fact that I keep coming back to learning makes me hopeful that I’ll get it one day eventually.
#7 It becomes a part of your identity
At some point, knowng so many languages makes you have a split identity. I consider German my “work language”, Croatian is my “family language”, English is for “everyday shit”, Russian is “daily life” and I still haven’t assigned a role to Spanish. When I spontaneously curse, I do so in Croatian. Dirty talk sounds best in Russian and I’d feel awkward as hell talking dirty to a girl in German. Explaining very difficult or abstract concepts is only possible in German or English for me.
Even your mannerisms and way of speaking change. I tend to speak fairly fast in all languages but I’m more expressive in English than I am in German or Russian. I have no problem with cursing or people doing it but I don’t curse much in Russian and it doesn’t sound too educated when others do it.
That only goes to say that you learn something new about yourself with every language you learn and with the people you interact with in this language. It’s a never-ending process of discovering something new, which I find immensely fascinating.