What sort of opportunities can appear from learning a new language?
August 14, 2020 7:32 AM   Subscribe

So, for a while I wanted to learn a new language. I started doing so this year with French. In part because I want to go to Canada and while French isn't necessary over there I am sure there are benefits to knowing both official languages. At first I wanted to learn German but settled on French because of Canada.

I've never really thought much about what opportunities could open up for me by using these skills. For instance, French would be my third language. I also know Spanish - - which is also why French has been somewhat simpler to learn, a lot of the rules are similar and it shares a ton of words with English.

I'm a software engineer. Perhaps in my field and other mathematical fields - - which is what I would be going to Canada for - - it doesn't matter much to know a lot about languages. Either way I want to exploit these skills and not just in ways that might make me more money or something. Getting into this was never about money.

However, I don't really know what to do with my language skills. I was wondering if people wanted to share their stories about what they did with their other languages.
posted by Tarsonis10 to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The language is the gateway to the culture. To my mind that's the big opportunity, the ability to soak in a different culture, to better appreciate it for its realities rather than impressions or stereotypes, and to see yourself and your own culture in a different light as a result.

There's a lot more, obviously - comfort travelling to new places when that becomes a reasonable thing to do again, new foods, new ideas, all of that, but to borrow a line from William Gibson, it's impossible to see your own culture, because culture is something you see with. Learning a different language and stewing in a different culture for a while gives you a chance to learn about yourself and your own culture, and a sense of self-awareness that you can't get any other way.
posted by mhoye at 7:46 AM on August 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

This depends on a lot on what level of competence you achieve in those other languages. I've studied a few languages and have varying levels of achievement; some things I've done with those languages include:

- with my very rudimentary Russian and German, I was able to conduct transactions and get directions in places where English wasn't an option; also people often think Americans (idk where you're from, but I'm American) are ignorant and so tend to be impressed that you're trying even a little, which in turn can open up opportunities with people who do speak English

- with my barely okay tourist French, I've gotten to have some interesting conversations with taxi drivers, hostel buddies, and neighbors on public transport; often these conversations have been in a mix of English and French as we were both able, but I definitely was able to have longer and more interesting conversations with these folks because I spoke at least some French

- while my Spanish isn't as good as it used to be, I used to have reasonable working Spanish. This was incredibly helpful at work (in Chicago), especially when communicating with young children and their parents. Also great for traveling: I will never forget the first time Spanish speakers laughed at a joke I made in Spanish. Seriously, I will carry that moment with me forever.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:53 AM on August 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I speak French and English, and I live in Montreal. Speaking two languages means I don't have to worry about whether I'm applying for a job in one linguistic environment vs another - this is something that hampers unilingual people here. It is also something that is not likely to be relevant outside Quebec.

But really, the main benefit a second language gives me is access to all the trappings of that second culture - the media, the music, the drive-by conversations.

It's often said that there's a special kind of stress associated with all the code-switching bilingual Montrealers have to do on a daily basis, but I've found that there's often also a special kind of communion between two people when one realises that the other is crossing the linguistic divide to meet them.

Bonne chance :)
posted by thisclickableme at 7:55 AM on August 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

French gives you access not only to people and culture in European countries and Quebec but also in the rest of the francophone world, including countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Even if you don't travel there in person, the internet makes it possible to start to explore things outside of the anglophone bubble.

The Alliance fran├žaise and other cultural programs in your area might have events you can participate in.
posted by trig at 8:03 AM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I fully realize that this is not a widely applicable story, but it sounds like you're not so much looking for the "standard" set of benefits from learning a language, so...

Because of my knowledge of French I got a free week-long trip to France! (To be clear I am a non-native speaker of French, though probably at a B2 level.)

I work in the widget industry*. An amateur social group interested in international widgets was planning a group trip to France and needed someone with French-language skills and an interest/knowledge of widgets to arrange visits to French widget museums and to do basic interpretation. I was that person, and in exchange for my services I basically got all my main expenses covered and a seven-day tour of France!

I also had a bit of a torrid weekend in Montreal with a Francophone that was able to happen because of my French, but that's another story for another time...

*obviously anonymized
posted by andrewesque at 8:17 AM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Others above have covered the cultural aspects in a much more articulate way than I could. I actually wouldn't assume that working in CS/math immediately means that other languages wouldn't be useful. I work in a big tech environment and the number of - technical! - conversations I've had in French with francophones over these past couple years is decidedly non-zero. (Obviously we would've figured out a way to communicate regardless, but being able to slip in and out of the language as needed helped, and I think it endeared me a bit to them that I was willing to step out of my linguistic comfort zone).

(Also, if I recall correctly and you are looking into entering an academic environment, French institutions are very very well represented in these fields, and you may find more connections than you think between Canada and France. For instance, when I was in grad school I received a grant from the government to work on my thesis project at a research institute in France for several months. I probably would have never had the guts to take the opportunity if I didn't already have foundational French language skills.)
posted by btfreek at 8:21 AM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I actually wouldn't assume that working in CS/math immediately means that other languages wouldn't be useful.

I was coming to say this. It's pretty common for people in math departments to have at least some knowledge of two or three languages other than English. I did a math PhD and now work in the tech industry. I also took a lot of German in undergrad. I was a a wedding a year or two back with a number of people I knew from the German department. I was using German at work more than a good half of the people with German degrees. Now, the overwhelming majority of engineers at my company don't use knowledge of any language other than English, but it is relevant to my job. I spend a shocking amount of time explaining to people that not all languages behave like English.

While most research is published in English now and you can get by with just English, there are many still-relevant papers and books in languages other than English. There's actually a MathOverflow question about books that are not available in English. It's true that "enough French to read math" is a far cry from "enough French to be useful for pretty much anything else". Reading math in German requires more knowledge of German--on more than one occasion, I was summoned by my advisor to help him figure something out. It depends on what particular subject you're interested in--I know no Russian, but it so happened that my area of interest was basically all in English and French, so those never-translated Russian books were irrelevant to me.
posted by hoyland at 8:39 AM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

You can read untranslated books in other languages and there are many, many of those.

For a big reader like me, it was frustrating to not be able to read so much that was written. I use my Spanish, French, Italian to read books, old classics, mysteries, new novels. I am a Dutch and Japanese learner. I've only been at Dutch seriously for a year but I can now read through books like Grand Hotel Europa. And my motivation for Japanese has always been to read Japanese novels.
posted by vacapinta at 9:25 AM on August 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I am attempting to improve my rusty Spanish skills partly as a way to help asylum seekers and immigrants. What broke for me is seeing an urgent call for Spanish-speaking volunteers to help conduct phone intake interviews with asylum seekers.
posted by Automocar at 9:32 AM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

It is also something that is not likely to be relevant outside Quebec.

Depending on your field, it's often relevant in parts of Ontario, even outside of the National Capital Region. In any case, in some circles, being fluently bilingual is a class marker to some extent, which can be helpful for convincing the right people that you're One Of Them.
posted by blerghamot at 9:33 AM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Once I became reasonably fluent in my second language, I was able to start making recipes from cookbooks that are only available in that language, which has been pretty fun.
posted by neushoorn at 9:48 AM on August 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

Also, UdeM is the second-best university in Canada for computer science (and somewhere in the top 30 worldwide), and depending on your areas of interest, may be a more obvious choice for grad studies than you may have considered.

Computer science is one of a handful of departments that admits non-French speakers to its graduate programs. I have a friend who did their doctoral program as an Anglo who I don't think took French past, say, Grade 11. Friend found the situation challenging at first, but it was an intensive crash course in French and they came out the other end both professionally and socially proficient in French.
posted by blerghamot at 9:49 AM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

You can read untranslated books in other languages and there are many, many of those.

And the nice thing with French -- because it is a large publishing market but also has a much higher percentage of translated works than the English-language publishing market -- is that you can often get access to books (especially in other European languages) translated into French that haven't (yet) been translated into English.

I've read works by Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Hong Kong and German writers that are/were not available in English when I read them.
posted by andrewesque at 9:53 AM on August 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I actually wouldn't assume that working in CS/math immediately means that other languages wouldn't be useful.

To be clear, I just don't know how I would integrate those skills into what I do. Which is in part why I wanted to find out more about how people use their other languages.

Also, I'm fluent in both English and Spanish. I've been speaking both since I was a kid.

I intend to reach a C1 level for French.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 10:21 AM on August 14, 2020

To be clear, I just don't know how I would integrate those skills into what I do

It could be an advantage if you're interested in working with multinational companies that have branches or clients in French-speaking areas.
posted by trig at 10:40 AM on August 14, 2020

French, specifically, will open a lot of countries in Africa to you.
posted by Hypatia at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

For me it's been a step into friendships. This doesn't really work with French (because it's not out of the ordinary to speak French in Canada or be from another French-speaking country), but if you know a language that's more rarely spoken in your city, you get to say "Hey, so you were speaking Russian?" And that invites them to tell their story. Boom, possibly friendship.
posted by kitcat at 2:37 PM on August 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Work-wise, I had one person who can't speak French 'thoughtfully' translate French documents to English for me using Google Translate, which was about as successful as it sounds. Even with my schoolboy level French I could get about 80% sense out of it just by reading the original, once I got him to forward it on (plus, since I know how French works, I'm not likely to misspell anything I typed into Google Translate wherever I need a bit of help).

There's also a certain category of country where speaking English means you can live there quite well, but an understanding of the local language is hugely freeing (although, to be clear, foreign tax forms are incomprehensible either way). In the Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and even Germany, most people will understand you in English, but things like signs and product packaging are incomprehensible, you can't pronounce local place names well enough to be understood, and conversations can switch language when two locals start talking to each other, leaving you high and dry. I lived in a country like this for years and I made an effort to learn the language - I know others who didn't bother.

Finally, and this might sound weird and a bit ridiculous, but reading a menu in its native language is incredibly useful. Translated menus are often quite creative, and local dishes don't always translate at all. It's been useful socially, too - being able to find restaurants that serve interesting food, rather than comprehensible food, when you're out and about with friends or colleagues.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 4:55 PM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

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