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What's the worst reason for learning a language?

I'm surely a little pessimist because I often wonder if I am learning for the wrong reasons. I realize that in a perfect world the motivation should be intrinsic, but impressing others drives me a lot more than any feeling of accomplishment. I might be a hopeless romantic but I'd say hope of economic payoff is the most unrealistic reason to learn, which it probably isn't. What do you think is the worst reason to study a new language?

November 20, 2017



If you are still in school, perhaps being forced to learn it when you have no uses for it.


Yeah, that was much of my problem in high school. There were other issues too, but at that time I wasn't interested in languages, I just had to take it.


There are no bad reasons. I can’t see that any rationale for acquiring another language is in any way negative.

Potential economic gain is probably the reason most people do learn another language - they want to emigrate, have better job choices, be more marketable, sell to tourists in their town, capture a broader market for their goods, etc.


Let me re-frame my question, what reasons are more likely to bring success for most people? What reasons lead to fluency and what reasons tend to fizzle out for most people?


I still don’t think it matters, as long as you personally find it compelling. It’s the passion that will make it successful.

There are reasons for learning a language that I would find personally dubious that would in fact mean a lot to someone else studying it who felt differently than I do. Either way, the knowledge is acquired. I do think you have to have a passion and drive for some reason. Me, I want to live in Italy for a while in retirement in a few years, so it’s a practical consideration.


There really isn't a "worst" reason for learning a language. Learning because it's useful is a great reason, and learning because you are interested in it, or you just want to, is a good reason. I guess if you have ulterior motives, like you want to use a foreign language to commit a crime or something, then that's a bad reason. But really there aren't any crimes that would require you to learn a foreign language to commit.

So yeah, no reason is a bad reason!


I went on this Ingmar Bergman kick and decided I would learn Swedish. I got to level 15 then just quit. In 20/20 hindsight, this seems like a bad reason and the cause of my failure. I wasted countless hours on the tree and many dollars in other resources. I can't believe I'm telling you this! I'm only asking this question because I've spent so much time learning languages and can't really speak them. I'm trying to examine my motivations and hopefully transform them to better reasons if possible.


But you got all the way to level 15! I've only gotten to level 14 in Norwegian for different reasons, and I've spent so much time and effort on the tree as well. So it still ended up being a good reason for you, even if you've quit now.

And I don't think anything to do with learning a language is a waste of time. It's great that you've been so motivated and put a lot of effort into something


I did a similar thing with Hindi, and it was an avenue that took me many interesting places aside from just learning languages and exploring cinema. It’s ok to start something and then put it aside. My Hindi is pretty poor, but it still makes me happy to hear it and understand a little.


Learning a language without any intention of using it. I use "using a language" very broadly here: it can be for work, for reading literature in said language, to watch tv in it, or because you are interested in linguistics and want to understand the differences between the many different languages of the world. I suppose that what I am saying is that you should use your knowledge of a newly learned language to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the world; after all, languages are first and foremost means of communication. But learning "just for the sake of it" - I don't know, I won't stop you from doing it, but it doesn't sound like an attractive reason at all. Just for impressing others doesn't seem like a very compelling reason either. How do you even find the intrinsic motivation for a particular language if you aren't really that interested in the culture of the land where it is spoken or the movies, books and other forms of media created in that language?


This is a very good answer


Sometimes languages are just interesting for their structure, to give you a new perspective on the structure of languages in general or languages you know, maybe even on your mothertongue. I'm learning Swedish pretty much only as a comparison to Norwegian and to see cross connections to German and English. I'm at the level of (slowly) reading novels without a dictionary, but am not planning to actively speak it and don't really care about Sweden. Also, I don't really like the sound of it, it lacks the lovely melody of Norwegian. ;)

Did I just win?


This is an interesting response, I do think you bring up a good point about just having a general interest in language. Personally, I think I go with a more passionate approach. As appealing as being passionate is, I think it is my reason for quitting after the honeymoon's over (Two or three months). Your more logical approach would probably be better for me and more enduring.


But then you have already indicated the boundaries of your learning progress in Swedish. You have a clear idea in mind what the use of Swedish will be for you - i.e., an interesting object of comparison to Norwegian and a new way of looking at languages in general. Something which I already mentioned by the way in my original comment ;)


For some the interest in a culture is most easily attained through studying that culture's language. Without learning "just for the sake of it," I think humanity would know much less than we do about just about everything.


I suppose that every human should have - and in fact, has - the drive to learn new things "just for the sake of it"; however, when we talk about "learning a language", we aren't just talking about learning new and exciting facts in general, we usually refer to gaining proficiency in said language; acquiring a skill, in fact. Acquiring higher levels in any skill costs an insanely amount of time, and languages are no different; if you aren't going to apply that skill - by reading, listening, speaking and writing in that language - then I'm not really sure what the use of putting so much time in it is really for. Again, I won't be stopping you, but that's my view of it.


Hi Dani1,

At first one thing. I don't think you had a bad reason or a bad motivation to learn Swedish! And I wouldn't call level 14 a failure! You've been catched by a emotional situation and decided to learn a language. Great! Why not? And maybe there comes the day you can use it. If not, you started to learn an important thing about another culture, their language.

I learn Spanish at the moment. I don't know one spanish person, I have no reasons to learn it for work. I just do it because I want it. I always wanted to learn spanish. I love the sound and the temperament. When I have enough money for holydays we will go to a spanish place, that's for sure :-))

A 'wrong' reason to learn a language in my opinion is to learn it because you feel compelled to do so. I had a friend who's boyfriend came from an arabic country. He was born here and had almost no roots to his heritage, but his family always pushed and urged her to learn the language. She tried but is was just a torment for her.

best regards Angel


If you join http://hellolingo.com you will meet Spanish people allover the world!

Start chatting and try to speak from day 1.

There is no need to wait until you have finished your DuoLingo tree :-)


Hi Thomas,

a very interesting site. Thank you :-)

best regards Angel


probably just for a grade for a class


Being forced to learn it because you are of a certain ethnicity and people expect you to speak the language associated with that ethnicity.


For sure that would suck, had a buddy in high school who was half Hispanic he wanted to take French class instead of Spanish but his parents gave him a hard time about it so he took Spanish. Did not learn anything in two years because he was not personally motivated.


Maybe "language X is supposed to be easy". Nothing wrong with learning easy languages if you like them, but if you're learning one only because others say it's easy, you're probably not going to keep with it.

Or as someone studying Swedish, I see people who are learning it because of pewdiepie or the muppets. It would be a different thing if they spoke Swedish (and maybe pewdiepie does occasionally) but learning a language because of a fictional character who doesn't even speak the language you want to learn has to be right up there.


Probably the difficulty. I honestly thought Polish was easy before I started, so I kinda am letting it die until I finish Portuguese and German. However, once I learn more and more languages, Polish will become easier so there is an optimism.


Worst reason? I mean, human beings are pretty creative when it comes to creating ad hoc justifications, no matter how ludicrous, so there is probably no bottom to the list of reason.

That said, the worst one I could think up is: "the chip the government planted in my head keeps giving me messages in X language, so I thought learning it would help me figure out what they are up to. But then I realized that's just what they wanted me to do! I'm no sheep, so I rolled a D20 (that I carved myself so I know it isn't rigged) three times to pick from one of the 6,000+ languages in the world at random and learned that one instead."


My reason for language learning can be seen as bad by some people i just want to learn new languages as a challenge i'm not super interested in other cultures.

I do want to know what life is like in those places but i will probably never go there but my crappy Spanish has been very use full recently.


It’s pretty useful if you are an American with any interest in soccer. The announcers on the US Spanish channels are WORLDS better than the lame English-speaking ones.


Yes but i'm Belgian and our soccer announcers are quite good


Yes, indeed. I only mean the US!


Humans thirst for information. Languages are an art form in their own right, not just a means of communication. This website makes learning even boring languages so fun, its nearly comparable to video games almost. Though I'm doing well with Esperanto, (the easiest language), I dare say learning any language on this site is fun if you like learning new words and phrases in a language different to your own. Language is more than a means of communication and survival, it breaths with the culture of the nation it originated from. Even writing a language is enjoyable; especially if that language has an alphabet very different from the ones we were raised to write in. Learning without native speakers to talk to or struggling to find an excuse to actually use it are simply excuses not good enough to prevent us satisfying our curiosity with a strange language from a foreign land. Even if it means making it your own.


Economic payoff,

ok not that I need the money, I have more work then I need in the U.S. Its more about options and flexibility, work in the U.S. 6-8 months and in a Spanish speaking nation the rest of the year whenever I please. That's the plan and its on track even without speaking spanish yet.


I would love to do the same for any country, e.g Colombia, Brazil, Australia, CapeTown/Africa, etc.
I would love to leave the European/German winter October-March/April behind me.

www.bstoked.net may inspire you, where to go: Where the wind blows... :-)


Back when I was getting started on language learning, some of the worst advice I had was: "You should learn [X] because it has more speakers." It shouldn't matter if the language has a million or a billion speakers. Learn what you are interested in. Don't learn something you're not interested in just because it's popular.


Ive seen it here already but, mandatory LOTE classes. in all honesty, the German that my account says I learned was because I was bored when I was still taking the class and I burned through the levels so I had something to my name. all my school had was french, german and spanish. would have loved a korean or japanese teacher.


Don't worry, you're not alone


I started learning Spanish on DL purely so I could accrue the XP from reading the stories (previous Latin, French and Italian knowledge meant I got 2 and 3 stars in the first two stories). I love the stories, but am not that interested in Spanish....although the only way to learn Catalan on DL is from Spanish, so there's another poor reason. I have better reasons for learning the other languages listed!!


This isn't a bad reason I'm about to give, but if you're feeling demotivated read on. So what if your reason is just to impress people, learning languages has amazing side effects!

So maybe you'll never visit the country of the language in question. Maybe you feel you'll never really have a reason to use another language.

Try googling bilingual with Alzheimers, stroke, dementia, and you'll find studies that seem to point to bilingualism delaying the effects of dementia and Alzheimers or giving a person a faster or better chance of recovery from stroke or other brain injuries. Two languages could give you 5 extra years of good quality of life, some studies are staying that 4 languages can give you 10 years extra protection from dementia. So... if your family has a propensity to develop dementia at age 60, and you have 4 languages, dementia will be delayed for you until age 70 (even though, in your brain, you might already have started to develop it at 60, it won't become noticeable for 10 years.)

That's worth a bit of extra effort for sure!


"Being bilingual didn’t prevent people from getting dementia, but it delayed its effects, so in two people whose brains showed similar amounts of disease progression, the bilingual would show symptoms an average of five years after the monolingual. Bialystok thinks this is because bilingualism rewires the brain and improves the executive system, boosting people’s “cognitive reserve”. It means that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more because they have extra grey matter and alternative neural pathways."


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