In life, there are certain things that we do, or skills that we learn, which are essentially a waste of time. Our pleasure doesn’t come from the increased utility of knowing a certain thing, but rather pointing out to people just how enlightened or smart we are just because we know something. Essentially, it’s the intellectual version of comparing penis sizes.
Have you ever met a person who will freely admit something they learned was a waste of time? I can think of a few, but for the most part, these people are few and far between. For every college graduate that struggles and admits that they’d be further ahead with just a high school diploma and a few years of experience, there are 100 that long for the sweet embrace of a college campus. Why do you think there are so many grad students? College is familiar and filled with like minded people. The real world is filled with bosses and profits, both scary things to a lot of college students.
The reasoning behind this is pretty simple. Who wants to admit that the thousands of hours spent learning something didn’t result in any tangible benefits? I sure wouldn’t. Admitting failure is hard, even for the strong willed. So because of this, we focus on the intangible benefits of learning something. Going to college may not have resulted in any tangible benefits for thousands of graduates, but the unmeasurable intangible benefits are off the charts.
See the problem here?
Nothing really combines the two issues more than North Americans learning different languages. Ho-lee crap, what a waste of time that is.
Every so-called tangible benefit behind learning another language can be rebuffed. Oh, learning a different language will increase your job prospects? Sure, marginally. Just how many North American companies are just chomping at the bit to hire somebody who knows Spanish? If they ever need someone who speaks it, they’ll just ask around. They can find somebody. For every position that requires you to speak another language, there are 100 that need other skills. Maybe working on those other skills is more important?
Imagine being a hiring manager, looking at a resume. Guy A has invested in certain industry education, and has demonstrated his ability to expand his knowledge. Guy B speaks three languages. Which would you be more inclined to hire?
The big language everyone thinks they need to learn for business is Mandarin. How many times have you heard that advice? I’ve never been to China, and even I know everything is done over there with translators. Besides, most everyone there under 30 knows English anyway. We have the advantage of speaking the world’s tongue. It’s infinitely more valuable for the Chinese to learn English than the other way around.
Besides, how many people start learning another language and then meekly stop trying a few weeks later? What? German has male and female pronouns but instead the words become different? I’m pretty sure more smokers end up successfully quitting than second language learners end up successfully fluent. But hey, keep holding that over my head, guy who speaks enough Spanish to ask where the bathroom is.
The best is when the amateur linguist simply picks a language out of the air. “Oh, I’m going to learn [insert language here, usually Spanish or German], and then when I go there for 2 weeks 3 years from now I’m going to impress all the locals with my ability to converse in their language. Go me.” And then they go to Germany and EVERYONE speaks English. I can think of 539,403 better ways to use your leisure time.
Oh, and in about 10 years everyone’s smartphone is going to feature a translation app that will work in real time. There are already apps that do the same thing, albeit crudely. It’s only a matter of time before a computer makes it really easy to communicate with folks who speak other languages.
Ultimately, we all have a set number of leisure hours. There’s a certain subset of people who believe that time spent watching TV, or pissing around on the internet, or whatever, is a huge waste of time. These people believe that any time not spent being productive is time wasted. I’m not sure there’s a group of people I pity more than the relentlessly busy. What a terrible existence, having to prove yourself all the time.
These people are the ones that are doing their best trying to make the rest of us feel inadequate because our leisure hours are spent reading for enjoyment or playing video games. “Oh, you’re not actively trying to improve yourself in every way possible? I see.” The whole lot of those people can take their condescending attitude and die in a fire.
You only have a limited amount of time to learn new things and have time for leisure activities. Which is why you can’t spend that time doing stupid crap that doesn’t matter — like learning a new language. For most people, the increased utility isn’t worth the vast amounts of time invested. Humans do not have unlimited amounts of time to invest in this stuff.
And this is coming from the guy who’s going to South Korea in less than a month. I plan to spend a few hours between now and then to learn the basics, but it’s not like I’m going to learn enough of the language to be anywhere close to fluent. I’ll be in a major center with a reasonable sized expat community, where just about every person studied English during school. It’s not going to be easy, but I’ll get by.
So there you have it. If the guy who’s planning on spending months in South Korea will be able to get by without learning the language, I’m pretty sure you can visit Germany without knowing how to say sauerkraut. It’s just not worth your time. It’s better to spend those hours learning something tangible.