1. By studying a foreign language, you’ll learn to communicate with people who use that language—and this could save someone’s life.
By studying Spanish, you’ll learn to speak with people who speak Spanish. By studying Arabic, you’ll learn to speak with people who speak Arabic. By studying Latin, you’ll learn to read the original writings of people whose ideas tremendously influenced the world for the past 2,000 years. By studying biblical Hebrew and Koiné Greek, you’ll learn to read the Scriptures in their original languages.
Although it may seem like a luxury to communicate in multiple languages, being multilingual is in fact common throughout the world. Beyond the United States, about 60% of the global population can converse in at least two languages—a statistic that cuts across economic, political, and geographical barriers. Within the United States, however, only about 20% of the people can productively use a language other than their native tongue. The bulk of Americans seem to think multilingualism is a luxury they don’t need; what they fail to realize is that knowing a foreign language is a necessity that can save someone’s life.
Imagine you’re a paramedic answering a 911 call from a Hispanic neighborhood. Whether or not you speak Spanish may determine whether or not an ill or injured person lives or dies.
The same may be said concerning spiritual death and spiritual life. Jesus commissioned the church to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He revealed to the Apostle John that heaven will be home to people of “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9). If anyone has a good reason to learn a foreign language, Christians certainly do!
By practicing vocabulary flashcards today, you are preparing to save lives tomorrow.
2. By studying a foreign language, you’ll learn about the culture of the people who use that language.
Language and culture are closely intertwined. Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that language determines culture to such an extent that there are some thoughts which can only be contemplated in one language, not in another. For example, if your language has more color words than mine, then you will see the rainbow differently than I do. Or, if you are an Eskimo with a lot of Inuit words for snow and ice, then you can experience winter in subtle ways that I cannot even imagine, since I have no language for expressing it—indeed, I don’t even have a language for thinking it.
Not all linguists agree with the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but many scholars do appreciate the most basic point: the language we use shapes our communication patterns and even to some extent our thought patterns. It follows, then, that bridging the language gap is an important step toward bridging the culture gap.
3. By studying a foreign language, you’ll learn to communicate better within your own language.
Have you ever struggled with when to use “who” and when to use “whom”? Have you found yourself saying (incorrectly!), “Me and John were playing soccer”? By studying another language, you’ll learn the difference between subjects (who, I) and objects (whom, me). Some languages, including German, Latin, and Greek, will subdivide these categories even further, including nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative cases—and ablative, vocative, and locative cases, depending upon which language and how long you study it!
Once you learn to distinguish qui and quem in Latin, or Ich and mich in German, you will not struggle any longer with the English examples given above. You also will learn to manage subordinate clauses more effectively. If you don’t already know, you will even learn what “subordinate clause” means when studying a foreign language—and that will prove useful when seeking to achieve a higher level of communication in your own language.
4. By studying a foreign language, you’ll learn about your own cultural heritage.
English did not come from English. English came from languages other than English—languages that perhaps should not be called “foreign” but rather should be called “ancestral.” English grammar comes largely from German, as does the basic vocabulary. Sophisticated vocabulary comes primarily from Latin, most of it filtered along the way through French. Academic vocabulary—especially in the realms of law, medicine, and theology—comes from Latin, often directly, or Greek, often first filtered through Latin.
Vocabulary words have not passed from one culture to another on their own; they have carried some “cultural baggage” along their journey. Consider, for example, the origins of our English terms for various domesticated animals and the meat that comes from them. The animals’ names are derived from the Anglo-Saxon language blend, which was spoken by the Angles and Saxons who raised those animals in England. The cuts of meat, however, derive their names from French, the language of the Normans who ruled over the Angles and Saxons following the Battle of Hastings (1066). Thus it happened that the Angles and Saxons raised cu (cow), pigge (yes, pig), and sceap (sheep), while the Normans dined on beuf (beef), porc (pork), and mouton (mutton). “Our modern English words of control and authority—‘order,’ ‘police,’ ‘court,’ ‘judge,’ ‘trial, ‘sentence,’ ‘prison’, ‘punishment,’ ‘execution’—all come from Norman French,” explains Robert Lacey in Great Tales from English History (p. 71). As for beuf and cu, he remarks, “It is not hard to see who produced the fruits of the earth, and who enjoyed them.” Language reveals our heritage.
5. By studying a foreign language, you’ll build a stronger vocabulary in your own language.
Sixty percent of English words come from Latin. What a pity that most Americans today are trying to get by on merely 40% of their native tongue! Proficiency in the sciences requires advanced vocabulary, much of which comes from Latin and Greek. Learning the major root words, prefixes, and suffixes from those two languages will greatly facilitate the study of the subject matter in virtually any professional field.
In addition to knowing what those roots mean, it also helps to understand where they originated. It turns out that pairing two words of German origin or two words of Latin origin still—after all these centuries—sounds better than combining one word from each culture. Imagine if Lincoln had said this at Gettysburg:
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in freedom, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. … [W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of liberty, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Instead, Lincoln said—and did so with greater rhetorical impact—“conceived in liberty … new birth of freedom.” Why did his version sound so good? Gary Wills, in Lincoln at Gettysburg, suggests that it all goes back to the original languages: “conceived” and “liberty” have Latin roots, whereas “birth” and “freedom” have German roots. By keeping like with like, Lincoln resonated better with the people’s rich heritage.
6. By studying a foreign language, you’ll develop skills in logical thinking.
There can be no language study without grammar, and there can be no grammar without logic. Grammar is the logic of language. Granted, grammar often appears to have so many exceptions as to be illogical. However, this deficiency is far more pronounced in English, which is a mishmash of so many languages, than in Latin or Greek, which follow their prescribed patterns much more faithfully (although still with plenty of exceptions).
When Latin students learn whether a given noun should be in the accusative or dative case, or when Greek students ponder whether a particular passive participle is in the present or aorist tense, their minds accomplish far more than rote memorization of the rules. They must grasp, logically, in one direction or the other until, at last, they latch onto the connections that unite each portion of the sentence into a meaningful whole. Just as the conductor leads all members of the symphony (literally, from Greek, “sounding together”), so also the linguist must make a symphony out of words—each in its own place, each with its proper prefix, suffix, verb tense ending, noun case ending, or whatever the “case” may be (pardon the pun).
When English-speakers first learn Spanish, they often are puzzled over the distinction between por and para. Once they learn that por points back to a preceding cause and para points forward to a future goal, then they discover that the English question “why?” is logically ambiguous. “Why did you wash the dishes?” In the sense of ¿por qué?: “because my mother told me to wash the dishes”; but, in the sense of ¿para qué?: “in order that the dishes may be clean.” Oh, and by the way, “in order that” introduces a purpose clause, which in Spanish (and also in many other languages) would require a verb form in the subjunctive mood.
You see, logic is built into language; sloppiness with the latter naturally involves sloppiness with the former—or, more optimistically, improving one of these leads to improvement in the other!
7. Finally, by studying a foreign language, you’ll learn to think for yourself and discover a seventh benefit of learning a foreign language.
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Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of Into Your Hands LLC and the author of several books, including Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Debating Evolution before Darwinism. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschooled children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023 He also serves as President of the Hausvater Project, which mentors Christian parents. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.