Loving language can save your life. Some talk about languages helping you get a better paycheck or offering cognitive benefits. If you aim to make yourself richer or smarter, learning a language gives you marginal benefits. They will not save your life, though.
Or will they…?
Our society in the US—and more and more in the first world—is developing a serious, deadly condition, that is, loneliness. Note, though, that this is a problem of the first world. It does not afflict those of the third world nearly as much.
By learning a language, especially one of the immigrant groups living near you, you may have a chance of dodging the deadly bullet of isolation that is literally killing people in our society.
People need to connect with people on a deep level in order to survive trauma. Loneliness, in one article, is the true root of addiction. A rat isolated in a cage will drink water laced with heroin or cocaine until it dies. When the rat is placed in a rat “town” with other rats and fun things to do, it will not. Drugs mixed with isolation provide the deadly mix.
Elsewhere, we see that an aggregation of multiple studies points to the fact that loneliness can kill you. For people under 65, the article states, “Loneliness, social isolation, and living alone were factors in explaining early death.” The number of connections does not count as much as the quality of connections. A lack of quality connections with others puts our physical health at risk.
Sebastian Junger, in his recent book, Tribe, relates how traditional societies dealt with PTSD. In tribes, every person needs every other person to survive. The intimacy is palpable and practical. Today, when someone returns from war, he or she leaves the intimate bonds formed in military service to reenter society. In war, everyone will give their life to their brothers and sisters; in the society their entering, there is no one to sacrifice yourself for—and no one will sacrifice themselves for you.
The problem for all of these is the lack of close, committed relationships with others. It’s as if our society forgot how to do that.
Learning languages not only will end your immediate loneliness concerns, but will teach you behaviors that will keep you connected.
First, learning languages forces you to get out of yourself and talk. You have to chat as part of your language success. At first, you may not have the depth of conversation you’d like to have, but by pursuing the language, you will reach that level at some point.
Second, learning the languages of immigrants and refugees around you will keep you close to the “best practices” of avoiding loneliness.
In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, it is common to see large groups of people of multiple generations in the park on a nice summer day. Once you look—or listen—more closely, though, you notice something. They are very often Latino or Hmong. This is how they spend their summer day, together as a family or friends—or both. Obviously, these people are not killing themselves with loneliness as they sit at home on Netflix or looking through work email.
Walk through the “infamous” Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, you will not often see someone sitting by themselves for long. Somalis do not often don’t plan to meet with someone at a coffee shop. They go to the cafe and see who’s there.
I could continue, but we see the point. What do these groups of Latinos, Hmong, and Somalis have in common? Only that their culture has not been Americanized yet. They haven’t forgotten the traditional way of dealing with isolation: getting together with friends and family, just to sit and chat and spend many hours together. They can teach us Americans who forgot how to have friends.
Do you want to live longer? Find ways of hanging out with people like this. Learn from hem. Guess what? The worse their English is, the less their view of relationships has been tainted by our American disease of isolation. If you work on learning their language THEY will save your life. Study Spanish, Hmong, and Somali, and you might live longer.