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Learning another language

In 2014 Johan hosted a radio show called “Language Value at Radio Warwick (RaW)” in Coventry, West Midlands. The show explored the question ‘Is it worth it learning another language?’

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Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Johan Byttner on the benefits of learning another language for your brain, interpersonal relationships and more. This is ­­his second story in our graduate voices series.

By Johan Byttner

Because a language is not just something a community is using—languages build communities.”

Is it worth learning another language? This question was the premise of a student radio show that I had the opportunity to host a few years back. The signals were beamed out in the Coventry area in England (this is relevant, I promise). I intentionally left the central question ambiguous, since I wanted to explore not just the ways to answer it but also the different kinds of value one could attach to languages. In the final episode I wrapped it all up by concluding that often, it is. Before the angry mobs of ravenous anglophones tear me to pieces, let me explain this point.

Language and culture—Why are we here?

I will start by stating that learning new languages will not make you a worse speaker of your old ones, even if you are very young. Surprisingly, this statement is rather controversial. To understand why, we need to do a detour to the early studies of language learning, conducted in the early 1900s in the United States. At this time, a significant number of U.S. residents were either Europe-born or had parents who were. With the rise of Americanization, there was a worry that people would embrace their non-American culture. Therefore, several studies were produced that showed how speakers of multiple languages usually did not master every aspect of every language. If you spoke only Italian at home, you may pause when describing the process of baking bread in English for the first time. These studies saw this as a weakness.

The studies followed the fractional view of bilingualism. In this view, your languages are independent, and your ability in each language should be compared to the ability of a monolingual of this language. The fractional view thus adds constraints on how you should learn your languages to be considered competent in them. Since many bilinguals learn one of their languages at home and another in their community, they were generally considered inferior to monolinguals. Starting in the 80s, researchers argued that the fractional view was reductionistic, and that most bilinguals got through life speaking whatever language was appropriate given the context. This is the holistic view of language learning. Below I will outline why I think it is the most correct.

Bilingual brains

A quick win when promoting bilingualism is its cognitive benefits. In a bit we will cover the effects of learning multiple languages as a young child, but first, we need to lay some groundwork. Repeated studies have shown that bilingual individuals suffer cognitive advantages as toddlers, adults and into old age. Executive Control, a catch-all term for cognitive control of actions and behaviour (doing things deliberately), is consistently stronger in bilingual individuals. Particularly, older bilinguals do not see the same rates of cognitive decline as monolinguals.

Tie this back to the fractional bilingualism in young children. Many parents notice that bilingual toddlers seem to be using all their languages to express themselves. This naturally makes them worried that the child is not developing as quickly as a monolingual. It is known as code-mixing and it is very common. However, toddlers have difficulties expressing themselves in general and the extra words from another language just improve their ability to do so. Given time, they will develop a deeper understanding not only of how to use each of their languages but also of which language is appropriate at a given time.

The art of sales

“We communicate to build community and understanding.”

I ended the radio show on a different note, however. The cognitive benefits are good and all that, but I think the communication benefits are more central to why one should learn languages. The basic business of language is the business of trust. We communicate to build community and understanding. Visiting presidents and heads of state can, by just saying a few words in the host’s language, build massive political capital, by showing they care. The same dynamic is, on a smaller scale, visible when someone makes the effort to learn their friends’ languages.

I call this the art of sales. This is the key to understand why language learning benefits you—in most walks of life, much of the time, you are selling yourself or your ideas. It can be pitching a new project or negotiating with your loved ones for extra cookies. Surprisingly many friendships, families and companies form across cultural borders and these bonds are becoming even more common. When a new bond happens in your vicinity, you are uniquely positioned to sell. To be able to build trust while doing this, is to close that sale. It is also how I closed the radio show, with the note that most people are selling themselves much of the time.

The intended recipient

I write this knowing that most people reading this probably have many bilingual friends and are, in their own words, cultured. But I aim this more at the normal, hardworking people; men and women who just want to go about their lives. When I originally hosted the radio show in Coventry, these were the listeners that I tried to reach during their morning commute. A lot of things have happened since I hosted the show and the West Midlands has changed in ways that make me believe that the people there—and many other parts of the world—need this message more than ever.

It is especially these ordinary citizens who will benefit the most from knowing more languages—the more so if they lack a college degree or other traditional markers of social privilege. The biggest change when learning a new language is not in your listeners—it is in yourself. That fear of a changing world, where you are not in control, will start to go away. You will be able to adapt, to stay current and control your future. Language is a skill that will give you both a new skill and confidence in yourself.

How to learn a language

When writing this piece, I was urged to go into depth about how, precisely, one should go about this. Since I am of the opinion that language learning is everyone’s business, my answer to that is simply “in whatever way you can”, given that you have to fit it into your life. The most important aspect of language learning is frequency—speak a few minutes every day, if you can. I will give you a goal, five words a day, until you have enough of a vocabulary to converse with a friend. If you learn together, it is more fun.

I will say something else, however: help others to learn new languages, especially the ones who may not naturally do so. You will learn faster—a language is learned best by using it—and you will build someone else’s sense of self-worth and confidence. Because a language is not just something a community is using—languages build communities—and community building is a tool for peace. To ward off the spectres of racism and hatred and to open minds, we should learn languages together. And this, I think, is worth it for everybody.

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Johan Byttner is a graduate of the IB from the time before ubiquitous smartphones. He studied Management at Warwick University, UK, and studies Mathematics at Linköping University, Sweden. Outside of class he rides horses in his spare time and works to make an autonomous car not crash into a fence near you.

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