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The “Usefulness” of a Languge

A while back, I received mostly negative reactions when I said Dutch was useful and was met with “well that’s not as many as English” when I presented the places across the world where communicating in Dutch is the norm.

This is personally what I believe: what is useful depends on your specific situation and what you plan to do. Personally, even though most would say Spanish is a more “useful” language, it would be useless to ME as I have no interest in visiting Spanish-speaking countries or in the Spanish language itself. Why learn a language when you have no interest in it or anything related to it? It would be a monumental waste of time.

If I’m planning to visit often and possibly live in Dutch-speaking countries, if I love the language and plan to use it in federal law enforcement such as CBP, then yes in my situation Dutch is useful. And EVEN IF a language doesn’t have a lot of speakers or the places its spoken isn’t great, that doesn’t make it a language that’s useless to everyone. Does it make you happy? Do you plan to visit wherever that language is spoken? Then I’d argue even the most obscure languages can be useful. It depends on you.

I hate the idea that since X language can be used in more places than Y language or has more speakers, then X is more valuable than Y. Maybe I’m weird but I don’t think any language is “above” another language. And when people essentially say “My language is superior to yours”, I just find that totally, totally wrong.

I’d like to hear if you think I’m totally off-base or what. I’m sure some will disagree and I’d love to hear why.

July 2, 2018



I actually don't disagree. It's not as if there is a world-wide language contest as to which one is the best. Languages are obviously useful to whoever uses them.


Everyone tells me that Norwegian is useless, but what if I want to move to Norway when I’m older? (I do)


Learning languages... any languages have been shown to:

a) fight off dementia b) encourage people to puzzle solve (come up with alternate solutions)

So you're benefiting even if you never speak a word of Dutch in the real world to another human being.

That said; some languages one may have a better chance of speaking with another than others, and maybe that deserves special consideration. You may notice however I'm learning Esperanto... and I love it, my favourite "foreign" language. I don't expect to ever have a "not-just-for-the-sake-of-it" conversation with anyone in Esperanto, but I certainly don't consider it a waste of time. It's fun to learn.

If you enjoy learning a language, (or have motivation to do so) it isn't a waste of time.


Professionaly, I come in contact with many Dutch speaking people. Since discovering, owing to Duolingo, I was indeed capable of learning more than the one foreign language I first learned as a child, I brought up with some the idea of learning their language. They all replied it would be much more effort than it deserves. If time was unlimited and brain capacity was not an issue, I would still learn, if only because they are such lovely people.

I study German, which led me to Duolingo, because I have a personal history with, and interest in, the language. If I still meet German speaking people, it's comparatively fewer. But I love their tongue, and won't forget for a long time the gleam of joy in their eyes when I was first able to talk a few words to them in their native, and hold a very basic conversation.

Where I live, Spanish is also much more common as a third language. But I only ever had two or three encounters with Spanish or Spanish speaking people. I'd like to learn Italian (while having only met one Italian), because of the country, because of art history, because of the music of the tongue, because it would be a further bonding experience with a dearest friend of mine.

I will probably learn Esperanto next, because ever since I heard about the idea underlying this language, I felt home with it. And who speaks Esperanto anyway? Not many. But people I'm pretty sure I would make friends with easily. So probably me too, next year.

What is useful? If I had infinite time and mind power, I would learn all major languages, plus some languages for their cultural, almost symbolic value (such as Hebrew), then probably all endangered languages, for the sake of it. As I'm limited, I had to chose, but remain fairly sure that "usefulness" as in "utilitarian" has very little to do with it all.
What is useful is earning enough money to make a decent living, without hurting others. What is useful is keeping one's health as good as possible.
Learning, when one is under no obligation, is just like art or love: it serves no purpose. Other than making life worth living.


I think a lot of people conflate usefulness with 'a lot of native speakers' because language learning is so difficult and takes a long time. I think this attitude is much more prevalent among younger learners or those who have just taken an interest in language learning, but don't have a specific language already in mind. They don't want to feel like they're wasting their time, so they naturally want to pick something that will give them some sort of advantage.

The problem with languages as utilities, at least for native English speakers, is that we already know the 'utility' language. Being monolingual is not a detriment in this case, but there's still that prevailing idea that we need to learn something 'useful' in order to be a successful language learner.

If anything, I would argue as a native English speaker, learning smaller languages is actually more useful in that context because there will be a lot fewer bilinguals in that sphere, thus making the individual learner more valuable.

However, I do think there should be a lot less focus on languages in those terms, and a lot more about the culture and history of the native speakers. I would love it if Duolingo had a sort of introduction to each language that had some of that information, because languages don't exist in a vacuum, and I think it would help get away from that attitude.


I definitely agree. Perception is reality. We all perceive utility differently, because we all have different reasons and motivations for learning the languages that we do. We have different circumstances and backgrounds that affect our language learning. What is ‘real’ for one person may not be ‘real’ for another. If you deem a language useful for you, it’s useful!


Je hebt gelijk! The most useful language is the one you're motivated to learn and happy to get to know.

To me, studying languages is purely for fun. If it's ever useful, that's a nice benefit.


No you make total sense. It depends on your situation. If you live in a X populated language AND you love it, go for it. If you hate that X language that is so popular and like Y, and you find your uses, go for it! Don't let other people dictate what you learn and what you don't !

Best wishes and good luck!


Ps. But, it's another matter if you love a language and have no uses! If that's the case, don't give up, just FIND uses for it! :)


I actually agree with what you are saying for the most part. Most people are learning a language or multiple languages for a specific purpose, whether that be to travel, communicate, or do something else. This means that for their specific goal, a language such as Swedish or Dutch may be more useful than English or Spanish would be. The only way I find the more "world dominant" languages to be more "valuable" to a person, is if their goal is to communicate with as many people as possible. This means that English, Mandarin, and Spanish may be more useful to them, rather than languages that have smaller populations that speak them. So, for the most part, I believe that some languages are more useful than others, just depending on the learners goals, preferences, and intent.


Some people consider learning the piano to be useless.


Good point. What is the most "useful" musical instrument to learn?


That's debatable. There are several contenders:

A washboard can be used to clean your clothes on after the ❤❤❤-down; but no one uses a washboard to clean anymore. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washboard_(musical_instrument)

"Spoons" are probably more useful, because you can eat cake with them after playing music on them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoon_(musical_instrument)

A third contender would be the "Jug" since you can use it to hold whiskey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jug_(instrument)

The most useful musical instrument to learn for me would be "the human voice" because with it you can communicate in many different languages... many of which you can learn here on Duolingo. :p


I suppose good electric guitar ("axe") can, if need be, serve as a blunt instrument when one is in a fix.

Too bad I'm into hollow-body wood acoustics! (But they sound soooo gooood ..)


I agree 100%. This makes me think of a friend of mine. Her high school offered Spanish, French or Japanese as a foreign language. Her parents didn't allow her to take French or Japanese because she was supposed to "learn a practical language" and in their mind that was Spanish. Since her high school didn't have a foreign language requirement at the time, she didn't learn ANY language. Apparently her parents preferred her being monolingual over her learning something that wasn't Spanish.

Unless you have to learn a certain language for some reason or another, you have to learn what you love. It'll be easier and it won't feel like work.


I agree. I'm planning to visit Russia and China, so I'm learning Russian and Mandarin. But, if I was visiting Egypt, I wouldn't get very far with Mandarin, even though there are more speakers of it than Arabic.


Yeah, whether or not it's useful depends on which use. ;)


I totally agree. My fiancé is dutch and has lived in the UK for 6 years now. He speaks fluent english and is actually so settled that he often gets mistaken for a Welsh person as he speaks such natural English (with a Welsh twang). Most of his family speak pretty good English and I've found it hard to learn Dutch but I've decided (9 years later - some of it due to other commitments meaning I didn't have much free time) to make a big effort to learn it now as it means I won't feel so awkward on family trips where I am on my own and would like to make more of an effort to speak to his relatives in their own language. Before, I didn't feel confident to and was embarrassed they'd laugh at me - I've realised they have an odd sense of humour! I'm finding duolingo so helpful. Years ago, I spent a long time studying Italian and French and I love languages and am sad I don't really have time to practise using these anymore. Although, I do work on a stroke ward and currently have an Italian patient so have been brushing up on my vocabulary and it's really nice to speak to her in her native tongue!


Usefulness is strictly individual. A language is useful if you use it. If you won't use Spanish, then Spanish is almost useless. Except from English and the local languages, most people are free to use or not a language, so we can decide if a language is useful by using it or not.


"Usefulness" or "if it´s worth" is one thing to consider... What is important as well is, if you have fun while learning, still though as was once said : “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you." It´s only a + for you if you know any foreign language (or any other skill...).


I agree, to know whether a language is "useful" might depend on the learner itself, some learn as they might be migrating or thinking about to that specific country. I , myself am learning French as I have learnt a bit of it in school and as I may move to Canada where French is a spoken and required language, Other than that I am learning Swedish and Spanish as I am interested in both these languages, and I think moving to Sweden someday so learning it beforehand might come in handy.


Depends where in Canada you move to... Some parts of the country are monolingual English, and some have an unofficial language that is more common than French. For example, in Manitoba, the second-most widely spoken language is Tagalog

[deactivated user]

    You're not off-base a bit. Each language has its own beauty, giving each one a value far beyond practicality. To say that one is more valuable than another forces people to disregard a language which can be both beautiful and practical...just not important to the one who says that it isn't useful.

    If I were to follow what others around say about learning another language, I wouldn't be on this site. Around here, Spanish is considered to be the only permissible "useful" foreign language...and, judging from their "English-only" attitude, that tolerance is VERY limited. BUT, coming here gives me the freedom to learn languages that others never dream of speaking and reading. I had originally fallen in love with French because of a Canadian-produced TV show that had aired here in the States, and I'm finally getting the chance to learn it. (I had the opportunity in college, but I never had the courage to learn it.) I'm learning Esperanto just because it sounded fun. (It has not disappointed!) I have Welsh on my "want to learn" list since it is an ancestral language. Korean because of my father's military service on the peninsula. Hebrew and Greek because of my religious upbringing. Russian, Japanese, Chinese, the new Hawaiian course because of previous exposure to a few words in the past. Well, let's just say this: I have half the site on my "want to learn" list for one reason or another. Most of them aren't "useful" in the eyes of others, but I personally find value in all of them.


    Agreed. Look at Korean. Used in 1 country of the world. Its inhabitants are very often NOT expatriots. Lucky for me, I live in a country that has a lot of Koreans visiting.


    A language is a tool. The people you received negative reactions from for learning Dutch would also probably chastise you for learning mathematics; their thoughts being that you could just use a calculator. As an American, I'm unfortunately familiar with the attitude of "if I can't or won't do it, nobody can or should." It's pervasive in our society. In my experience, the individuals most likely to respond negatively to learning are also the most likely to waste their lives away spamming Facebook with uninteresting minutia, watching cat videos on Youtube, and/or playing video games for hours on end. Not that there's anything wrong with those things. How someone chooses to spend their free time is their choice. I just don't understand why they would judge you for spending your free time learning.

    If learning Dutch makes you happy, then I'd say it's useful. Life is short. Do what you love and don't waste your time worrying about jealous critics.


    To me, the question is: "How useful is a language for ME?" Context is everything!

    Maybe random others can (gently, please) suggest a different language that may better serve my purposes ... but my purposes are my own. The decision as to what language suits me, is mine.

    Someone mentioned choosing the "best" musical instrument. My mother was a keyboard person, but I'm drawn to strings. Plucked and strummed strings, to be precise. Both are excellent. Neither is superior to the other.

    By the same token, I won't diss aficionados of the kazoo, or of Klingon.


    This is so true! As far as I'm aware, Irish is only spoken in Ireland and has little to no speakers anywhere else, but I have lots of Irish relatives and visit Ireland almost every year, which makes the language useful to me.


    In assessing the "usefulness" of a language, the key question isn't "How many people speak that language?" but rather "How many of those people do you anticipate having conversations with?" Polish generally doesn't find its way onto most lists of useful languages, but it is very useful to me since I have in-laws who speak only Polish.


    For an extremely socially awkward person/Finn like myself, even that isn’t the key question. The number of conversations I’ve had in ES, SV, FR, SK & EL combined outside the classroom is in single digits. But if you asked me “Do you have a use for those languages?” I’d say yes. If I want to get to know the country/culture, read a certain book, watch a tv show or understand my favourite song, there is no better way to do that than learning the language.


    Extremely socially awkward person/Finn

    Seeing these two treated as synonyms made me chuckle.

    And yes, I agree that learning the language is the best way to learn about a country/culture.


    I really like that way of putting it. It explains quite well why for me Latin was a waste of time (not that I learned it to the point where I could have had a conversation anyway), but Klingon isn't. I recently had a discussion about this and I wish I would have thought of your rather snappy way of putting it.


    People may be the most important factor in deciding to learn a language but there are other reasons too. I may not speak French that often unless I'm traveling, but I can read it, listen to the radio, or watch TV.


    Watersports motivation: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/27492547/Looking-for-an-inspiration-why-to-learn-new-languages-Train-watersports-and-visit-the-country

    As there is a) the sea in the netherlands, b) they have good wind and c) you can do kitesurfing or windsurfing there, actually learning Dutch could be quite useful and beneficial to connect with locals.

    You can also meet kitesurfers from there in Egypt and top kitesurfing spots like ElGouna, Hamata, etc.
    Another option to connect with natives from the Netherlands is if you go skiing in Austria.

    Some places like Gerlos seem to have a higher population of Dutch speakers (I used to "Ski-Schaukel" my way over the hills to Gerlos several years ago);
    I am not sure about other top regions (there are surely more top locations where you can meet them).


    It's not just about the number of speakers a language has or its geographical spread, its also about the culture associated with that language. There are so many reasons to learn different languages!


    Hmmm I can kinda see both sides of the picture. For me, my mother is dutch and we travel to Holland fairly regularly to see family. I enjoy learning it, have a gcse and my relatives are always rather impressed. However, many of the dutch have a far better level of english than my dutch and will therefore converse with my in dutch. Many university courses are in English. One could get by with just english for a very extended period of time.

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