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The College Magazine - Spring 2000 : A Word to the Wise
A Word to the Wise

It’s funny how once you learn a new word, or the name for something you didn’t know had a name, suddenly you start seeing it everywhere. It might even make you think that the words you use have an effect on how you perceive the world. To take a case in point: As I started mulling over the question of what is gained by learning a foreign language, in preparation for writing this article, miscellaneous bits of information I’d picked up over time about the curious habits of non-English-speakers floated into my mind, among them the fact, which I also dimly remembered to be not necessarily a fact, that the Eskimos have some hundred different words for snow.

This supposed phenomenon is generally brought up to illustrate the point that different languages reflect the different experiences and cultures of their speakers, and, more invidiously, to suggest that so-called "primitive" peoples have a superabundance of concrete nouns in their languages to make up for the absence of sophisticated abstractions. Well, guess what? If you have ever passed along this chestnut, you have fallen, as I had, for The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

It turns out, moreover, that a good number of people are already wise to the hoax, and will confidently assert that there are actually some other number of Eskimo words for snow. My brother, for example, looked pityingly at me when I confessed my previous gullibility and said, with an air of infinite sorrow, that there are nine. A recent New Yorker, quite unprovoked, informed me that there are two. I even thought I might have overheard someone talking about it in the produce aisle at the grocery store (or maybe it was snow peas…). Suddenly, out of a hazy sense that there was something about snow, a clear-cut concept had emerged—the Hoax—that I could now talk about myself with some confidence, having learned what to call it. Its interest lay not so much in the actual facts of the case—whether there were two words for snow, or nine, or nine hundred—but in the very fact that people talk about it.

Therein lies the crux of the matter, and not just the matter of the Eskimo hoax, but also the matter of studying languages. There are plenty of good reasons for learning a foreign language—very likely a hundred of them—but to my mind the most compelling is this: In understanding the differences between what we say and what other people say, and how, we begin to understand the relationship between what is in the mind and what is spoken.

This relationship underlies many of the answers often given to the question: What’s the point of studying a foreign language? Words are the most intimate artifact of culture. Understanding them can illuminate other, unfamiliar lives in a way that nothing else can. Over time, I have collected some particularly striking examples: Classical Greek, for one, has a word that means "commander of a squadron of elephants," and another that means "ignorant of geometry." Persian has different words for rugs that are woven and those that are knotted, for cooked and uncooked rice. But the cultural distinctions drawn in these cases are quite crude. The real insight gained through the experience of using a foreign language is, ironically, quite difficult to put into words. It goes beyond knowledge, to understanding—which is surely the essence of education.

Of course there are other good reasons to study a foreign language. It does make you smarter, for one thing, as is borne out by studies linking higher scores on standardized tests to language study. It helps you to understand and use your native language better. And it makes you more employable. Across the country, even business schools, those bastions of utilitarianism, are increasingly expecting MBA students to be proficient in a second language, which only makes sense in an increasingly global economy where, whatever people say, not everyone speaks English. While it is true that most graduates do not find themselves using French or Spanish or Uzbek (or whatever they took to meet their two-year language requirement at IU) on a day-to-day basis, most do use the skills that studying those languages developed.

What is more, knowing a second language can prepare you for the unexpected, the unforeseeable, the serendipitous. My grandfather, for example, a Frenchman, was among the stranded allied troops rescued by English civilians at Dunkirk. With fewer spaces in their paddleboats and canoes than there were men to be saved, the Brits were picking up their own countrymen first. "I say, old chap," my grandfather called out (according to family legend) in the plummy English accent he had picked up during a summer at Oxford. "Lend a fellow a hand, will you?" Once they had him in the boat, his saviors were not about to throw him back, even when they realized their mistake.

In the end, learning a second language, like learning about the French Revolution or the theory of relativity, is simply part of being an educated person. And you never know—it just might save your life.

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Last Updated: December 15, 2000
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