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Why Should We Learn a Second Language?

Five years ago, I started falling in love with languages. Quite funnily, it was not because of this that I started to learn foreign languages. I grew passion for it after seeing how much language affected the very way I perceive things and the way I communicate with others.

Before I jump to the ‘how’, let me back you up with a little story.

I was born in Surabaya, the second biggest city in Indonesia, one of the most culturally rich cities in Indonesia despite its large population. Growing up there, I seemed to instantly and naturally develop two spaces in my brain reserved for two particular languages: our beloved national language, Bahasa Indonesia, and the other one, our ethnic language, Javanese (yes, it is a language, not a dialect—Javanese and Bahasa Indonesia are two completely different languages).

So clearly, these two languages are my mother-tongue. But on top of these two, of course, studying in a big, modern city, it’s an ‘unwritten law’ that I would need to also be fluent in speaking English. So I started taking extra after-school English classes from the age of 7. And in 2014, I attended an intensive language school in French out of my own interest.

Now, how did all these change my perception, again, you ask? I am not a linguistic expert nor a psychologist but I can speak from experience. So, let me take you there.

Learning a language means learning the culture of that language.

You can never separate a language from its culture or the other way around. Language is attached and subjected to its culture and that is the reason why a language transforms— because its culture also changes.

It was not until I learnt foreign languages that I started to realise the massive significance language had in my life.

The first thing that surprised me about English is that we only have one pronoun to describe the second person— ‘you’. In Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese, we have multiple types to distinguish their authorities and whether the relationship between you and the second person is amicable or formal. That was when I realised how much hierarchy and authority are respected in Indonesia—and it is through language that I started to notice this.

My brain also seemed to expand a lot more each time I spoke a different language.

When I speak Bahasa Indonesia, I can tell between two types of ‘we’: the ‘we’ that only includes the first and third persons, and the ‘we’ that includes the first, second, and third persons.

When I speak Javanese, I see the world as that of hierarchy – I can tell three ‘you’s’: the one we say to friends, the one to our parents, and another one to the royals.

When I first learnt English, I felt like I could travel through time – I can say verbs in the past, present and future, which are inapplicable in Bahasa Indonesia nor Javanese.

When I first learnt French, I could see gendered objects – and they would never be the same again.

Learning a second language boosts your logic towards your primary language.

Okay, this one may seem contradictory, but trust me, it isn’t. With primary language, you speak with intuition and out of habit. You know how to use the correct grammar not because of the structures that you learnt but from your experience in speaking and listening to that language. Saying “I is good” sounds so wrong compared to “I am good.” But why?

When we were babies, we learnt to speak not through vocabularies and grammar but by listening. It was not until you learn the grammatical structures of it that it started to make sense why you speak the way you do. And most of the time you start to get the opportunity to dig deeper into it when you’re learning a second language.

Learning a second language doesn’t only improve your grammatical understanding of that language, but you also start to see the comparison and equivalent to that grammar or vocabularies from your primary language because it is how you learn. And this is when it starts to make sense!

When communicating, you become more conscious about what you say because you get to understand the philosophy of vocabulary and grammar.

A couple of years ago, when I first started learning French, I came across the word vivre—which, in English, it means ‘to live’. A couple of days after, I stumbled upon the word survivre—which is a combination of two French words: sur (above) and vivre (to live). But combined, survivre, in English, it means ‘to survive’.

As any normal person, the first time I figured that out, my jaw dropped and my mind was blown. It started to make sense. This doesn’t only mean that I know what the word ‘survive’ deeply means. Having a deeper understanding of a word led me beyond just using the word. It made me more conscious about my word choices and I am able to produce better quality of phrases when speaking. This led to being more aware about how I communicate with people.about how I communicate with people.

On a bonus point, it’s always useful to have your brain naturally producing great choices of words for essay, isn’t it?

Learning language comes with cross-cultural networking skills.

A more obvious one, of course, is that learning a second language stretches your communication skills. I mean, after all, with all of the three points above combined, how can you not, right?

Have you ever traveled to a non-English-speaking country? Have you ever tried speaking to the locals using their language? Have you ever seen the look on their faces when they knew you were a tourist and you were speaking in their language to them? That’s how much of a boost in opportunities you have to make a lot more connections with people when you are able to speak their language!

After all, if learning a language really is equivalent to learning a culture, then that means your perspectives are expanded a whole lot more. So it makes sense that it becomes easier for you to communicate and network with so many different people with so many different perspectives!

Sheilla Njoto

An Indonesian Arts student based in Melbourne, looking forward to studying her Master in International Affairs next year! Passionate about culture, language and global issues. She enjoys writing and reading for fun with feet on the table and black coffee on one hand.