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He did there confound all the languages of the Earth

Even though Taiwan is not Babel, my staying here has still made me think a lot about all the languages that exist in the world and what it means to study a few of them. The essential question here is what negative and positive aspects are there to take into consideration when learning foreign languages? The most important issue is the extraordinary amount of time it takes to become proficient in a foreign language (let’s use my English as a reference). In spite of knowing what it takes, I started studying Chinese and I even though I don’t intend to go to Dubai for real, I’m convinced that I will learn more languages in the future. I think most people would spontaneously answer yes to the question whether it’s good or not to learn a foreign language, so to counter this, I will start with discussing the various negative aspects involved.

The biggest problem by far is the amount of time required to learn a language. I’m not quite sure that people realise this, or rather, that they realise how much time we’re talking about. If we compare educations, for instance, learning a language to a certain level (see above) is probably as time consuming as undergoing a complete university education in Sweden for any subject. Still, I’m convinced that this is not the way most people view language skills. Of course, they know that it’s difficult to learn French, but if they haven’t tried, they don’t know difficult or to what extent. Most of the time, I don’t consider this a problem; if I did, I would never be able to motivate spending most of my time studying Chinese, but this is a question that keeps surfacing in my mind  Occasionally, it also interferes with my studying, which is the primary reason for writing this text in the first place. As is the case with most things that take up a lot of time, it isn’t the activities themselves that are the problem, but rather the things one could have done instead.

So, if  I wouldn’t have spent (at least) two years studying Chinese, what would I have done instead? Studying languages I already know would be the obvious answer for me. If I had invented that amount of time in studying English, perhaps I would feel a lot more confident writing fiction in English, or if invested in Swedish, I could have come farther down the road to becoming an author. Since time isn’t unlimited, this is a question about priorities and it sometimes feels like a difficult choice to make. Regardless of how diligent or talented the student is, focusing on many things instead of a few will always mean that the highest level is lower than it would have been otherwise. Unfortunately, if I want to become an author, it doesn’t really count that I’m proficient several other languages.

But here I am, studying Chinese, a language I knew only a few words in when I set out in August 2007. Why? The simplest reason is that I enjoy it immensely, I feel the need to learn more, to understand this language and to master it. I want to take my Chinese to a level where it’s genuinely useful, where I can read books, newspapers, discuss whatever topics that come up. I like the learning itself, and perhaps most importantly, I like the challenge. Needless to say, there is a challenge in improving my Swedish or English as well, but the challenge is of a different kind. Of course, knowing a few languages will always come in handy, but you all know that already (if nothing else, it tells people what kind of person you are), so I’m not going to expand on that at all.

At the end of the day, I’ll still spread my focus over several languages, although I know that this question will keep resurfacing now and then, regardless of this attempt to bury it for good. I might be hesitant to start studying yet another language, but if I know myself to any extent, I know that is not a promise I can keep. Still, I’d rather be very proficient in the languages I already know to some extent (Swedish, English, French and Chinese), which will assuredly keep me occupied for a while yet!

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