Knowing a Few Words in a Foreign Language Is a Good Thing

May 19, 2019

Nine out of 10 elementary schools in Europe offer children the opportunity to learn multiple languages, but only a quarter of American elementary schools offer instruction in a language other than English. And enrollment in language classes at the secondary and college levels have been falling in recent years.

But Americans may not be as language depauperate as we think. We’ve just been holding the bar too high.

That’s according to Marek Kohn, the author of Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever.

We put too much emphasis on being “fluent” in a foreign language, he argues, there are significant benefits to speaking a foreign language imperfectly.

“The significance…is to say, ‘Look, this is as far as I've got, but I have made a little bit of an effort to come some way towards you,’” Kohn told Living Lab Radio. “There really is a huge amount of value to very imperfect and limited interactions that nonetheless signal that you want to be closer to an individual, or to a community, or even to a nation.”

There may also be benefits to your brain, though that’s a more controversial area of research, Kohn said. Speaking two languages exercises the executive functioning of the brain.

“The system that says, ‘Okay, pay attention to this, don't pay attention to that.’”

With two languages swirling around, the brain has its work cut out keeping each language in its proper place and stopping them from interfering with each other, he said.

“The idea is…possibly over a lifetime's practice [this] can build up to a reserve that can actually help delay the onset of dementia.”

That’s not settled science, but there’s firm evidence about the social benefits of knowing words in another language. It could be as simple as realizing that English has one word for “friend,” while Russian has four. That’s the reference in the title of Kohn’s book.

“When I'm talking to somebody about a friend of mine, I might say so-and-so is a dear friend, or close friend, or a very old friend,” Kohn said. “But I don't have to do that. Whereas in Russian, I'm forced to choose between a number of different categories and those boxes don't really map onto the way that English people describe their friends.”

That distinction reveals important information about Russian culture, he said.

“Their social network maps are more richly colored than they necessarily are in the English-speaking world.”

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.