Learning to speak multiple languages at a beginner level – is it worth it?

Author: Karol Cyprowski
Translated by: Karolina Koszałkowska

I’ve always compared using a foreign language to a lifelong relationship: you have to care for it in order to maintain it. Keeping up with two or three foreign languages, even at an intermediate level, is already a huge time-consuming commitment that stops you from adding another one to the list. Being able to speak a language is nothing like riding a bike – there are known cases of people forgetting their own mother tongue as a result of not using it daily. This approach may be hard to accept for the so-called polyglots, who struggle to strike a balance between keeping the skills they already have and learning something new. I’ve been there too – I’d start learning Czech, Albanian, Bulgarian, Dutch, Arabic, being able to say a phrase or two – and after a few years it all would just disappear from my mind completely. Today’s article provides the answer to one of our readers’ (or frankly anyone who gets involved in language learning) burning dilemma. The reader writes:

“I simply can’t decide on one specific language to commit to. I’d like to learn the basics of 10, maybe even 15 different languages, get to know each of their cultures, and then call it a day. Maybe I’d go back to them someday, who knows? By saying “the basics”, I mean learning the basic vocabulary, most frequent phrases and elementary grammatical structures.

Being stuck to one or two languages for the rest of my life seems boring and limiting to me. I love to learn anything that’s new and unknown.”

There are some crucial issues to address:

  1. Does it make any sense to learn so many languages only to reach the elementary level? Isn’t that a waste of time?

It depends on what you consider a waste of time – the matter is very subjective here. If you’re not passionate about languages, there is probably nothing more pointless than studying them at a basic level. I’d even say that watching an episode of your favourite soap opera or a Champions League game has more of a practical sense – at least it’s relaxing. But if learning about cultures and languages of the world is something you enjoy doing, definitely go for it, as it could become somewhat of an intellectual pleasure. I wouldn’t call it a waste of time – I think everyone deserves a hobby and a little bit of “me-time”. But I also wouldn’t say it’s something to be praised and looked up to – frankly, learning the basics of your eighth, ninth or tenth language is no different than spending your time running, watching TV, or crocheting.

  1. What are the advantages of it, besides satisfaction?

I’m not going to lie to you – there are almost no practical advantages. Best case scenario, you’re going to impress the monolinguals who never really got to learn any language, and think that “speaking a language” equals knowing a few greetings and salutations. Natives will probably appreciate it too, as it’s always nicer to hear “thank you” said in one’s mother tongue. It varies from country to country though – Russians and Germans won’t probably be too surprised by your basic knowledge of their languages. However, saying “faleminderit” to an Albanian could really change his attitude towards you. And that is basically it.

  1. Is it useful in life? If yes, in what circumstances?

Besides the example given above, the only thing I can think of is being able to read things written in languages that are similar to the ones you already speak. It seems quite possible to master the skill of understanding all languages within the Slavic, German or Romance family in their written form, which can definitely broaden our cultural horizons. It is also worth noting that the reading comprehension doesn’t fade away as quickly as other language skills (e.g. actual communicating), so it takes relatively less time to achieve. However, this will only work if you master a few main languages within a language family at a really decent level. My ability to actively speak Bulgarian is almost none, although it doesn’t stop me from understanding newspaper articles written in that language. The reason is that I already speak very good Serbian, Russian and Polish (my mother tongue) and I have a general Slavic language related knowledge.  If it wasn’t for that, my very basic Bulgarian vocabulary and grammar would be useless for reading.

  1. How would it look in my CV? Would it impress my potential employer?

An employer’s main concern is if you are able to do your work properly and if he’s able to pay you for it. That’s why he’s mostly interested if your ability to speak language X is high enough for your particular job position. It can be easily measured through interviews or language tests which you will most likely fail with only the basic knowledge of a particular language. He or she is not necessarily interested that you have a bunch of certificates in a language that you won’t need for your job. For example: I have recently worked at a call centre where I was hired thanks to my good knowledge of German. Even though I spoke at least 3 languages better than German at the time (which I even happened to use once or twice in my working), I knew it wouldn’t be much of a help in the recruitment process. When I later started recruiting people myself, I didn’t really care if a person speaks anything besides proper German (even though I always appreciate people that have a language hobby or a hobby in general). Truth is, we had to do our job in German, so there’s no chance I would employ someone with a basic knowledge in it, even if he had a basic knowledge in ten other languages. Personally, in my CV I only include languages that I speak at least at an intermediate level (B2). Anything lower would simply be considered useless for the work environment. If you are unable to actually USE a language, why would you even brag about it?

Study languages at your own responsibility

I might have appeared a little harsh on the topic, but don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned from my own experience, that spending time on the languages I don’t really need (French, Ukrainian, Afrikaans, maybe even Serbian) keeps me from developing other, usually far more important skills (both language and non-language related). So if you are like I was six years ago (wanting to speak as many languages as possible), remember that you should really be passionate about it. Otherwise you might feel like you’ve wasted your time (especially if you compare your profit to your loss). If messing around with that many languages makes you truly happy and fulfilled, then go for it! I still think there is nothing more enriching than being able to reach these parts of the cultural world that you wouldn’t be able to access speaking just Polish and English, but in order to really reach them, achieving at least a communicative level (enabling you to process information, watch movies, reading books and listening to the radio) is crucial in my opinion, and that’s what you should focus on.


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