There are many wholesome reasons to learn and use languages. Mine are cultural to enhance my travel and social experiences.
Some people learn to understand their heritage, to be able to better appreciate music and literature, and some are passionate simply about languages in themselves and what makes them up and how they work. Others are forced to for academic reasons, to find a job or because they had to move country quickly.
How you learn a language depends on how you plan on using it, but there is one end-use that really annoys the hell out of me: to show off.
Gather around and watch my performance!!
I like to call this the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language. Such a person doesn’t actually see any worth in the language itself; they just want attention from people.
And I can see where this concept may come from; if you’re a guy you imagine yourself as a James Bond figure at a party wooing all the ladies as you get off the phone in Japanese, yell your order to the host in Italian, whisper flirts into a girl’s ear in French etc. I mean that would be quite a show!
But it’s not a reality. Some people actually do tell me that they want to speak multiple languages “because it would be really cool!” and they end up picking broad variations of languages not because they want to communicate with Chinese people, but because Chinese is more “impressive” than say Spanish.
This terribly superficial reason for choosing means they simply don’t care enough and it’s unlikely they’ll have what it takes to get very far.
As I said, there are people who are genuinely interested in languages in themselves and like to study differences, so for them different family trees do hold a lot of value in themselves. But if you pick a language because it would prove yourself as smarter because it’s “harder“, then the lack of really caring about that language and its culture is going to show very quickly.
Today I’ve got a controversial explanation for what may motivate quite a lot of people to make such decisions to use their languages to impress people!
It’s a guy thing
I was talking to Susanna Zaraysky, a female polyglot, a while back before she wrote a guest post on this blog for me. We had a fascinating two hour long chat over Skype and near the end she asked me a question that had been on her mind and told me she found my controversial answer to be quite an interesting explanation.
She asked me Why do you see mostly male polyglots online? They’re making most of the videos, writing most of the blogs etc. I don’t get it! Women are generally more interested and talented in languages…
Other female language learners have asked the same question.
My answer to her was simple. It’s because guys feel the need to show-off more than girls do.
I don’t doubt that girls have equal if not better skills in languages (I’m not interested in comparing if the purpose is to discourage one as less skilled, as with the age discussion), but if you search youtube for “polyglot” or in general find some of the bigger names (definitely not necessarily the best names) in language learning, you’ll see it’s mostly male dominated.
This isn’t because sexism got us voted to the top, it’s because guys tend to have bigger mouths and need more public validation as the expert than girls do.
Demonstrating to the world how great you are by speaking a bunch of languages is the ultimate ego-inflation. It’s the best party trick ever; being multilingual can be as good as being a dancing monkey in terms of getting attention; at least to the person who thinks it will work.
The great pissing competition
And now comes the ugly side of language learning; something you would never expect from language learning; which is ultimately a way to communicate and bridge gaps between people: Verbal wars fuelled by testosterone.
I find it mind boggling when I look online in forums, and on some websites when I see how some polyglots treat one another, both towards me and towards others I’ve personally talked to and know are genuine. I’ve personally gotten so much abuse, insults and character attacks online that I’ve never discussed on this blog. I’m genuinely trying to encourage the world to learn languages, but endless arguments about irrelevant or misleading things will shadow this and attempt to portray me as an evil force.
It’s like a Western gone wrong: This Internet ain’t big enough for the two of us. In typical macho fashion, instead of working together, there will be a pissing competition of who is “better” at their languages and who is right, since there is only “one” way to learn a language and apparently one universal end goal.
And what gender do you think most of these trolls are? Most of the time, it’s guys fighting with one another. We may as well pull down our pants and take a measurement as far as the real point of the arguments go. They can be framed as discussions, but how often do you think a productive collaborative result is reached between guys fighting for alpha male status?
Susanna has told me she’d like to contribute to my blog again to try to encourage more female bloggers/writers/commenters to appear and contribute to language learning discussions. The language learning community definitely needs it.
There are better ways to impress people
If you are learning a language to impress people, then let me tell you right now that you are wasting your time! You simply won’t be getting the validation you seek, or if you do, it will be as superficial as your need to get it.
I usually prefer to simply not bring it up at all in most conversations, and answer the “what do you do” question with “writer” and attempt to change the subject (what do you do questions are boring) and not have the same conversation I’ve had many times before.
When people do find out I’m a polyglot, after the initial surprise where they may indeed be impressed, then I have to go back to relying on my personality and making the conversation interesting and of course talking about them too if I want to make a good friend. Using “I speak x languages” as an ice-breaker is as good as saying “Look at my fantastic Rolex/Porshe etc., aren’t I great!”
Sometimes they ask me to say something in some random language. If I do answer them in the language, what I’m usually actually doing is complaining about the unimaginative question! Then since they brought it up, I’d happily explain my passion for learning languages so they understand why showing them off really is not necessary. Languages are a means to communicate.
I’ve found that the best way by far to impress people, is to be nice and to be genuinely interested in them. Guys, listen up: You don’t need to speak several languages to do this. Being rich, or famous or whatever also doesn’t matter to people. These are just superficial status symbols.
When I speak to any individual I only ever need one language; the one they speak and that’s why I learned it in the first place. If I were to rattle off French or whatever at them just to show that I can (which you’ll be happy to hear that I don’t), rather than be impressed they’d realise that it’s just a weak male ego seeking validation. Sadly this is what I see online occasionally when people use their languages for no reason but status.
Being able to speak multiple languages is a wonderful thing that allows you more freedom to have such conversations when the time comes up, but the conversations can only be interesting if you genuinely love that language and communicating in it.
Try not to learn a language as a party trick; the world has enough dancing monkeys as it is! Learn it for genuine reasons of loving that language and culture.
Your thoughts on this controversial subject? Let me know in the comments below!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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