Why learn another language? Why even learn to read?

All my life, I’ve spoken English and only English. I’ve travelled broadly, across Asia and Europe, and knowing just one more language wouldn’t have been enough. Even then, in the strictest sense, I’ve never needed to know a foreign language. It’s amazing what pointing and speaking slowly and trying different words can do. In short, I’ve always got by. So why learn another language? Three reasons. Three huge, gob-smacking, little game-winning reasons that have nothing to do with utility and everything to do with happiness.

Knowing another language makes you happier

An important caveat before we properly begin… I am not yet fully fluent in my second language of choice (Mandarin, 中文). But in a curious fashion, the fact that I see all these benefits and have all this extra happiness already just makes my point even more strongly. It can only get better from here! And yes, at some future date I’ll also write about how I’ve done things to make my learning as easy and effective as possible.

One of the 3 books that has totally transformed me and my life was “Flow”, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. At the heart of this book lies the insight that activities which add to the complexity and richness of our lives are what make us happier. Beyond this simple criterion, it doesn’t matter even matter what those activities are. It could be understanding deeply the physics that makes apples fall from trees and onto heads. It could be seeing the rich complexity of modern art as more than just a splash of colours. And it could be having access to an entire new pantheon of literature and art and appreciating the rich complexity of your native tongue from a new and alien perspective. It doesn’t matter. The simple act of knowing another language – or anything else – will make you happier.

The process of learning another language directly makes you happier

What’s more, not only does knowing a new language make you happier – the process of learning one directly makes you happier too. Looking back on what you’ve learnt and seeing how far you’ve come is satisfying, deeply so. Even more though, learning that “认” in “认识” sounds like “人” (albeit a different intonation) and not being surprised at this – hard to explain, but a feeling worth having!

The process of learning another language indirectly makes you happier

Last but not least, perhaps most importantly of all, learning another language makes you happier indirectly, in so many other areas of your life. This is because learning another language makes you smarter, cognitively more flexible, more creative and analytically stronger.  It drives better learning skills, and helps encourage a plastic mind. See here and here for just two publications that show this, and here for a whole slew more.

There might be many reasons why you choose to learn another language. It could be for professional success, because you need to live in another country, or for personal reasons. Augmenting and trumping all of those are two that strike at the core of winning the little game: Learning a second language makes you happier, and learning a second language makes it even easier to learn other things and become even happier still. In short, asking why you should learn a second language is like asking why you should learn to read!

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