Why are you learning languages? Is it love?

Why learn languages?
Why learn languages?

In Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, “How great leaders inspire action”, he posits that great ideas begin not with the “What,” but with the “Why” and then the “How.” That is, every company produces a “what,” but not all delve into the more profound areas of why and how they produce what they do. I’ve learned a lot from this presentation in how to examine what I love doing and what motivates me to keep on going.

Language means everything to me, but so does service to others. In this blog I’ve been trying for many years to express why love and deep connection with others motivates my language-learning.

Now I’m going to lay out why love lies at the center of my learning languages.

I believe that we all should put ourselves out there to love. More specifically, we need to sacrifice for one another, especially for those in need.
Why loving language


5 ways to overcome fear and awkwardness in language learning OR How to talk to strangers

Don't just listen! Break the ice and start talking.
Don’t just listen! Break the ice and start talking.

I get shy sometimes. Some days I hear one of my languages and I jump right in. Other times, I find it hard to insert myself through the awkwardness into a potential conversation.

With Somali I have to count on conversations with people. I have not found many materials, plus I’m getting past the stage where materials help me that much. Now I just have to talk to people. I went to one of my favorite Somali cafes today for conversation.

As eager as I was to talk, I was silent, bashful. When I ordered my food, the gentleman told me to sit and he would bring me my food. I was too shy to sit. “Where do you want to sit?” he said, food in hand. I shrugged.

“Sit here!” He set down my food next to a man about my age in a room of folks involved in a football (soccer) match.

I had to figure out something, or waste my practice visit.

What should I say?
How I overcame the awkwardness

Week 28 of Loving Somali: Looking honestly at progress

Take a better look--your happiness may surprise your!
Take a better look–your happiness may surprise your!

My life is wonderful, yet sometimes I imagine I’m supposed to be living a different life than the one I’m living. At those moments, I get overwhelmed by so many things, find I’m not letting myself sleep enough, and feel down. Languages are my passion, but they’re not everything in my life, or even the best part of my life. They make me feel alive and happy. The moment they no longer make me feel good reminds me to take a step back and look at the totality of my life and remember how wonderful my life is. What am I really doing in my life? What progress am I actually making in my language?
The reality of my life

Week 22 of Loving Somali: Inspiration extinguishes burnout

Inspiration pulled me out of burnout.
Inspiration pulled me out of burnout.

I’ve been listening to the “Actual Fluency Podcast,” hosted by the language-loving Dane, Chris Broholm, and a couple recent episodes helped me out tremendously. My language-learning energy has been flagging. I’ve been doing some exercises out of a book and daily vocabulary flashcards. I needed a boost, and the podcast inspired me to take the next step. Continue reading “Week 22 of Loving Somali: Inspiration extinguishes burnout”

Week 19 of Loving Somali: Barasho wanaagsan! Nice to meet you!

I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.
I have always found it nice to meet Somalis.

This weekend I took a trip to a conference Arizona, and even though I wasn’t planning on practicing my Somali much, I ended up doing more than usual. I look forward these days to spending time in airports, looking for East African adventures.

Continue reading “Week 19 of Loving Somali: Barasho wanaagsan! Nice to meet you!”

Week 12 of Loving Somali: Living dangerously as a language misfit

Compelled to vulnerability, we excel.
Compelled to vulnerability, we misfits excel.

Writing this week’s post surprised me. My languages brought me into a mental space, I found out, where I recognized my need for “dangerous” language situations that potentially make me look stupid or annoying. Moreover, my strange, unique language love compels me into these fantastic experiences. I’m a language misfit, which leads me to connect with unexpected, unlikely people, resulting in great joy.

Continue reading “Week 12 of Loving Somali: Living dangerously as a language misfit”

Week 11 of loving Somali: Living the Polyglot Dream

Living the dream is time for celebration!
Living the dream is time for celebration!

I’m living the polyglot dream. This term was coined by Lucas Lampariello at his blog by the same name, and I mean by it that I managed to keep my love of language at the forefront of my mind and found many opportunities for and much joy in immersing myself in languages. While I set aside time this week to be sure I was working hard on Somali, I kept my ears open when I could speak or listen to other languages. I managed to engage Somali, Amharic, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Continue reading “Week 11 of loving Somali: Living the Polyglot Dream”

Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings

How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?
How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?

This week I noticed some cool facts about time in Somali, namely, how they tell time, name the days, and greet each other. I also found some parallels with other languages I know. I think the latter might help some of my readers. Since I’ve studied a lot of languages, I’m able to see some interesting parallels that may help others to skip some steps in trying to learn these facets of Somali. I find it fascinating when I find some peculiar construction in a language, and then stumble upon it unexpectedly in a totally unrelated language. “This looks familiar!” always gets me excited.
Continue reading “Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings”

The hard work of loving language

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

What do you do when language-learning stalls?

I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!

I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?

Continue reading “The hard work of loving language”

What is language-love worth?

How does language-love enrich you?
How does language-love enrich you?

Recently I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, and they had an episode entitled, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It.” I listen regularly to this podcast because they, as economists, ask creative questions to understand human behavior quantitatively. In this episode, they wanted to examine quantitatively whether learning a foreign language is “worth it.” In order to quantify this worth, they measured the return on investment (ROI) of learning a foreign language. They found that the ROI is quite low; however, ROI of this skill does not accurately quantify the value of a foreign language because the ROI of a language depends on the wealth of the people using it, not the skill itself. They actually showed that the ROI of a language is high if its speakers are rich.

The findings on Freakonomics

To summarize the findings of the Freakonomics folks, languages help but they usually offer minimal ROI. Languages improve one’s cognitive abilities, such as decision making, namely, one tends to make more rational decisions while thinking in another language. One scientist hypothesized that the emotional detachment one enjoys keeps decisions from becoming irrational.

People earn more money depending on the language they know, but the money is minimal with one exception. One of the researchers concluded, “We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. ” These figures indicate that language offers minimal ROI benefits. We find one exception to this trend, however: English. “In [similar studies conducted in Turkey, Russia, and Israel], actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent.” Hence English can offer a substantial ROI over speaking only a non-English language. If you speak English, you will not enjoy a high ROI in learning another language, but if you do not speak English, learning it benefits you substantially.

The problem of ROI as value of language

This calculation of ROI bothers me because it looks at average ROI without the context of the jobs in consideration. People do not necessarily make a lot of money because of skills, but because of the material substance of the person they are working for. For example, I will make more money serving food at a high-end caterer than at a soup-kitchen. The work is substantially the same, but my salary assumes how “demanding” (read, “rich”) my client is. Elton John did not become a knight because he plays piano well; he is a knight because he played it well for aristocrats. A Harvard English professor will make five times what a community college English professor in Idaho makes, even if they have the same PhD and publishing record. The ROI on learning a language depends on wealth: 1) the average wealth of speakers of that language and 2) the average wealth of the actual clients you work with.

The language one learns determines in part the client one would use it for. People in the US who need someone to speak Spanish to them are most likely poor, uneducated immigrants. There are few jobs where you make a lot of money serving poor, uneducated immigrants. Jobs that would require German, however, would imply that you are working with people in Germany engaged in international business of some sort. Hence, jobs that require German offer more money. Americans tend to be rich and monolingual, so learning English for them is important for making money. Moreover, rich, well-educated people throughout the world speak English, so if you’re Turkish and work with Saudis, you can learn Arabic but your ROI will be less than if you learn English. The language you speak selects for the socio-economic class of your client, so the language selects for the salary.

Speaking a language with rich people will make you more money than speaking it with poor people. Most educated people in the world tend to be the richest and they tend to learn English. If I, as an English-speaking American, want to earn a lot of money, then I should work with rich, well-educated people. This is why most American business people are happy to know only English: everyone they work with is wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable in English.

Learn Arabic, for example. You will make much more money if you work with oil companies in Dubai than if you work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Learn Russian. You will make much more money if you develop natural gas fields than if you help victims of human trafficking. If you want to work in oil or natural gas, though, English will probably suffice.

Other values of learning a language

You have to decide if your motivation is making money or not. How you answer that will determine the ROI on learning a language. Learning a language for working with people who do not speak English will not make you more money. If you are looking to make more money, foreign languages will often not help. But there are two significant benefits to learning a language that this podcast neglects because they are much more difficult to quantify.


First, “uneducated” people do not lack knowledge. Maya Angelou said, “Some people, unable to go to school, are more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” By speaking a language besides English, you will learn more about how people live in ways very different from the relatively materially wealthy lifestyle of the English-speaking world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn about different ways of understanding oneself to be American or about life right alongside Americans. If you learn Somali, you can learn about the importance and dangers of clan relationships and the importance of oral poetry. How does the US look from the margins? How does ancient literature learned through memorization sound to people?

One of the great achievements of humans is understanding how others perceive them, and learning a language allows for this heightened perception. The Freakonomics episode following the language ROI one regards how humans perceive how others perceive them. The human brain naturally focuses on this perception, but it tends to get it wrong. It’s essential to get it right, however. The main professor featured in the podcast stated, “If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively.” Thus, in order to be effective in leadership positions, we must develop our accuracy of how we are perceived by others.

Significantly, getting to know others in a foreign language gives you insight into how people perceive you and your culture and your presuppositions. Not just foreign language study, but using it to speak about people’s lives and their interactions and perceptions of others will improve how we lead in our job.


Second, humanity needs people to work with poor people. We cannot value service for its own sake highly. Jobs that require true sacrifice bring a lot of good out of people. As a people, too close of need for material wealth will ruin us. We need to see the value of serving human beings and we can become more kind, more giving people.

We can improve ourselves as human beings as we learn about how we are perceived and as we serve others without constant material gain. Learning a foreign language offers the best means for gain in these areas. You will become a better person, but it may not be measured by your salary.

ROI on language-love

We will earn more money if we find a job that puts us in front of people who have a lot to give. A foreign language may or may not offer that. Some careers are populated by people with more money, but usually they do not require a language besides English.

Languages will make us better human beings and better leaders. We can achieve greater wisdom and more accurate self-perception. Meaningful opportunities to serve others can open up with another language that would not be available without English. To be human and to know humans require us to learn a language.

Why do you love languages? Why do you want to learn a new one? Is money part of the calculus?

Photo credit: epSos.de / Foter / CC BY