Skip to content

Is Language Dabbling a Waste of Time?

Sa oled ilus! That`s the one phrase I know in the Estonian language, meaning “You`re beautiful”. From what I`ve been told, that phrase is highly relevant and useful for men visiting the Baltic nation. 🙂 But I literally don`t know another single word of Estonian. Like most language enthusiasts I spend some of my time dabbling with languages of interest, and some of my time going to war with the main languages I want to conquer.

Is dabbling a waste of time? Should you feel guilty about it? Well that depends.

Pick any given language, and there will be people dabbling in it for the following reasons (among others):

  • Dabblers often enjoy learning about languages and gaining a general understanding of how people communicate in a particular language. They`re interested in linguistics, in how languages work.
  • They also may have a cultural interest in an area where that language is spoken, and want to learn a little of the language to gain some more insight into the way the people think and interact, but have little need for proficiency.
  • They are planning to travel to a country where that language is spoken and want to learn a little to help them “get by” or communicate more easily with the locals.
  • They may start off with ideas of studying the language more seriously, but start to lose motivation after an initial honeymoon period.

The first three reasons for dabbling are perfectly legitimate, because you can achieve your desired goal by dabbling. The fourth reason is another matter.

Gaining an awareness of how languages work

Syntactic Parse Tree Generative GrammarIf your goal is to gain a general awareness of how languages work and learn the general features of various language families, then learning a little bit of one language before jumping to another makes perfect sense.

Think about it – you probably read articles about topics you will never be an expert in, because you want to have a general awareness and knowledge base. For me an example might be politics. I read the news and I listen to political stories on CNN, but I`m never going to attend the Democratic National Convention or vote in the primaries or anything like that. But that`s ok, because for my purposes (understanding what`s going on in the world) my knowledge base is pretty much sufficient.

Building a general knowledge base about how languages work is the same kind of thing. You`ll be able to participate more in conversations about the languages of the world, you`ll have more understanding and appreciation of your own language, you can enjoy trying to decipher bits of foreign language text you stumble upon and guess what language it might be. In short, any language study will help you better appreciate languages, even if you just dabble a little bit here and there.

Indulging a cultural interest

Allahu Akbar - God Is The Greatest.Similarly if you have a cultural interest in a certain language, dabbling can be pretty beneficial. For example, if you are interested in the Middle East and North Africa and you study even a little bit of the Arabic language you will have a much more lucid understanding of just how much religion affects daily life in those areas. By learning even introductory Japanese you will likely be impressed by the degree of politeness and relative hierarchy within Japanese culture, because this is reflected in the language.

yoroshiku onegaishimasu japaneseEvery culture is imbued with its own unique (and unconscious) set of values, beliefs, and assumptions that determine how people in that culture perceive the world. A culture is like a collective personality, in a way. People have told me on a few occasions that I seem to act differently when I speak different languages. I think that`s because each culture, or collective personality, is linked to its language, which is kind of like a lense through which you see the world.

So learning a language is an important part of understanding a culture, and even if you just learn a little of the language, you understand the culture that much more and gain new insight into the way people in that culture think.

Learning travel phrases or “survival” language

speaking to locals in tripoli lebanon
Arabic helped me make some new friends in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Lots of people buy phrasebooks before their travels and most barely even open them! But some people actually study a little bit of the language, maybe learning some simple phrases like greetings, how to order food in a restaurant, how to ask for directions, how to scream “Police!”, maybe a naughty word or two.

Other people might even practice the pronunciation system a lot and dive into the introductory grammar of the language so they can make simple sentences and hold their own in dumbed-down conversations with locals.

Serious language enthusiasts and polyglots may have some contempt for this seemingly superficial journey into the language. But if you use the language to accomplish functions or make friends with locals, then you have greatly succeeded because that is exactly what languages are supposed to be used for!

And it makes your trip much more enjoyable and satisfying if you know even a few phrases of the language, because in most places the locals will react with real joy and excitement towards your tidbit of lingo. When I travel, meeting the locals is almost always the highlight of my trip, better than monuments, natural attractions, or outdoor activities. And learning a little of the language helps me do that.

So even if you have just a couple weeks before your trip, study some of the basics so you can enjoy some friendly communication at your destination.

Giving up after the honeymoon period

The last reason people dabble is because they lose motivation when their initial rate of improvement begins to slow, or they realize that learning the language will be harder than they initially thought. They give up before they really get off the ground and gain momentum.

In another post I will talk about how such dabblers can turn themselves into warriors and stick it out for the long term.

Language study is special because it is never a waste. Learning even a little gives you both tangible and intangible benefits. The more the better, but there`s no reason to feel that you`ve wasted your time by learning just a little of a language, and there`s no reason to avoid studying a language that you think you won`t keep studying longterm. Even if all you want to do is tell a woman she`s hot!