Why do we choose to learn a particular language?


If you could choose which language to speak before you were born, which language would you choose?

The linguist Noam Chomsky affirmed that the reason for the use of language in human beings is due to the need to express thought, and that we all have an abstract mental device capable of generating any sentence in any language; it is as if in our head, as an innate mental structure, we all speak the same language. What differentiates us is the extrinsic way of structuring it, the production in a code of linguistic signs.

Based on this opinion, many theories have emerged that try to explain why when we are born we have the ability to understand and speak a specific language naturally or how we learn others. Language is an instrument of communication, and the basic need to communicate is what leads human beings to seek multilingual learning.

But why do we choose one over the other? There are more than 6,000 languages ​​in the world, and yet we would not be able to list more than twenty. English, French, Chinese, Russian…? What motivates us to make that decision? It seems like an easy choice because most of the time they make it for us, but in that consideration there are numerous factors that intervene consciously or unconsciously.

Why do we want to learn another language?

There are many positive effects of speaking more than one language, not only on a social and cultural level, but also for our brain. It has been shown that learning another language is beneficial for cognitive development: it improves memory, decision-making and, according to the latest research, this neuronal activity delays aging and the appearance of degenerative diseases . It seems that everything is advantages , although the possible benefits that it entails should not be exaggerated either .

Already the fact of speaking our mother tongue implies brain development that will advance as our language skills grow. Knowledge of our native language will influence the learning of a new one; the real mastery of our language will optimize the acquisition of another. This influence runs both ways, as our first language will also improve in fluency and in expanding and using vocabulary.

Social and professional expectations

More practically, among the main factors that drive us to choose a second language are professional development and the social expectation of communication. Under these premises, English is the first language studied as a foreign language.

This academic priority has been imposed since we went to school, so its study does not always lead to motivation or a positive attitude, keys to achieving significant learning. Regardless of this, English is the lingua franca of the contemporary globalized world, so it is necessary in any work and academic field in which we want to move.

‘Powerful’ languages

In 2016, the World Economic Forum made a classification of the most powerful languages ​​in the world taking into account various variables; the first five languages ​​are, in addition to English, Mandarin, French, Spanish and Arabic. These five are the most spoken in the world, both by native speakers and by speakers who have it as a second language. If we chose some of them, we would do so because of their job opportunities, their position within the economic and geopolitical order and because of the territory that we would cover with their knowledge.

English is official or co-official in 57 countries; Mandarin is the language with the largest number of native speakers, followed by Spanish; French is the official language of diplomacy and one of the working languages ​​of the European institutions and, finally, Arabic, whose economic and cultural influence is joined by being the official language in 23 countries and the second language in the Muslim community (a quarter of the world’s population). So, if we are only moved by the desire to travel as an impulse to learn, these may be the chosen ones.

Cultural or geographic proximity

In addition, when we decide to study a language, we tend to be both culturally and linguistically close: knowing its alphabet is interpreted as an advantage and as a sign of accessibility when it comes to understanding its grammar, although this is often not linked to its phonetics.

This means, in the case of Europe, that the leading languages ​​in education continue to be English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.

Capture more world

Despite all these advantages, we should not obsess or harass anyone with learning a language at all costs. Learning a language is beautiful for all that it implies: knowing and understanding your society, respecting your culture and traditions, and sharing your thoughts beyond stereotypes. Fernando Lázaro Carreter said that “language helps us capture the world and, the less language we have, the less world we capture”.

Do you already know which language to choose? A piece of advice: choose the one you want. Because, if we want to capture the whole world through its languages, let’s pursue it for whatever reasons, there will only be one reason that really motivates us, and that will be the key to success: understanding that a language is the soul. of a community, not just a communication tool.

Author Bio:Immaculate Sanz Mateos is Associate Professor. Department of Spanish Language at the University of Valladolid