Learn a 'Useful' Language

This post is based on one of my favourite pieces of nonsense that we hear every so often: learn a ‘useful’ language. People will trot this out from time to time when they want to be heard saying something about languages, but they don’t want to reveal how little they know about the topic. However, anyone who dispenses advice like this is simply demonstrating a high level of ignorance to go along with their prejudice.


You can only learn one language... ever... can't you?

Before we get to the main issue, let’s consider a secondary problem with this attitude. I have been in more than one conversation where the wise dispenser of advice has said “But why learn Gaelic when you could learn French or Chinese instead?” When I pointed out that I speak both French and Chinese as well, the sage was not sure what to do with that information. In some instances, they then tried to persuade me that this proved that Gaelic was ‘not enough’ and that I had to learn more ‘useful’ languages as well. This argument did not go well, as we shall see below. In other instances, they said that that was fine for me, as I obviously had a lot of time on my hands, but busy people like them would have to pick and choose which language to learn (which is sometimes code for “I once tried to learn a language and didn’t really make much progress”). Of course, I agreed with this. Everyone who is thinking about learning a language should be picky and should choose the one that suits them. They should not, for instance, be swayed by someone else’s opinion of what constitutes ‘useful’.



Just to emphasise the point, though: it is rarely, if ever, a matter of exclusivity. We don’t have to think in terms of learning only Gaelic. So, if you have reasons to learn Gaelic beyond the utilitarian idea of how ‘useful’ it might be to you, then go ahead: the other, ‘useful’ languages will still be there for you afterwards. More importantly, the act of learning Gaelic will automatically make you a better language learner and will help prepare you for learning other languages. This is a win:win situation.


What is Useful?

The main problem with the idea is that there is no way to define ‘useful’. Remember those conversations I had with people who said I should have spent my time learning French instead of Gaelic? And, when I said that I do speak French, they said that Chinese would probably have been more useful? Well, the most recent encounter I had with the ‘useful’-language nonsense was a post I saw in which the author was applying the advice not to Gaelic but to French, German and Spanish. He was decrying the emphasis on these languages in Scottish classrooms, because these were not going to be ‘useful’ languages for our young people as they moved into the world of work. In other words, the world of work was the only environment where he could imagine a language being useful. This blog writer was trying to appear wise and prescient but at the same time demonstrating a tremendous amount of ignorance about the reality of the world of work. Just as an example drawn from my own work experience: I have made significantly more money out of German and French than I ever have from my Chinese; but that pales in comparison with what I have made from Gaelic… In any case, knowing what I know about the process of learning Chinese, I am confident that Chinese is not going to supplant the European languages as a major international lingua franca for business or tourism purposes.


No doubt this post writer was largely just trying to stir up a discussion, but it is interesting that he would have the audacity to describe French, German and Spanish as something other than ‘useful’ languages. Let's not forget that Spanish is the second-most widely spoken language in the world, that French will soon have more native speakers than English, and that German is the European language of business. Those facts certainly give them an air of usefulness.


In any case, ‘usefulness’ is only one of many, many reasons why someone might want to learn a language. In fact, it is one of the reasons that tend to lead to less success in language-learning. Much better reasons to learn a language include (but are not limited to): interest, friendships, passion, love of music, love of arts, love of travel, enjoyment of the sheer adventure of language-learning, mental exercise, self-esteem, family connections, desire to understand historical or other issues. What these wise sages with their advice about languages (but usually a lack of mastery of more than one) tend to forget is that learning a language is quite a lot of work. It involves a time commitment and regular, disciplined investment in energy. Not many of us are prepared to do what it takes just on the basis that, one unspecified day in the future, this language might turn out to be somehow ‘useful’. But we will put in the effort if the learning process itself gives us joy and satisfaction.


What about Gaelic, then? Is Gaelic useful?

Well, yes. Almost without exception, all of the people I know who have learnt Gaelic as adults have found it a rewarding experience. Gaelic offers all of the wonderful stimuli that I mentioned in the paragraph above. Not only that, but it is perfectly viable to make a living directly because of having acquired the language. The only thing that I can think of that comes under the general umbrella of ‘useful’ and is not entirely relevant to Gaelic is tourism. But, even here, I am sure you can find ways to benefit from your Gaelic!


Learn a language that is useful to you. And you be the judge of what that means.

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