Some of us are lucky enough to have learned our mother tongues as babies, picking up from our parents. The rest of us, who never had that privilege, are tasked with the inconvenience of learning it by ourselves. If you fall into the latter (no shame, I can totally relate), is it really worth investing hours and hours to learn another language? Aren’t there so many better things to do with your time?
Upon researching the effects of multilingualism on an individual, I have come to learn that the cognitive, cultural, and emotional benefits associated with fluency in multiple languages are monumental. However, due to cultural assimilation, the children of immigrant families lack the drive or societal pressure to pick up their mother tongue.
For those on the fence about picking up a new language, whether the excuse is lack of time or motivation, the patience and perseverance you put in makes a world of a difference.
For those of you who have been fortunate enough to learn their mother tongue, do not take it for granted. Enjoy the simple conversations with grandparents, the pride you feel as you alternate between languages with relatives and family, and the smile on people’s faces as they admire your talents.
Even to those who speak English as their mother tongue, the ability to pick up another language opens up so many doors of opportunity. The cognitive benefits, though subtle, are fascinating and rewarding, as well.
I know this hectic world of endless responsibility and distractions makes picking up a new skill seem like torture. Trust me, I really do. Just to paint the picture, my family came to the United States from India when I was one year old, so I have lived practically my entire life in the U.S. The only effort I put into learning a new language was in middle school and high school when I selected Spanish for world language class. Fueled by the vast competition around me, I prioritized getting the grades over motivating myself to learn the language thoroughly and practice my skills.
My native language is Malayalam. That’s right, Malayalam. As the name makes obvious, this language is a complex collage of tongue twisting tribulations. The unique pronunciations and articulations are nonsensical to the untrained ear. My first push to learn Malayalam came to me through my local Syro-Malabar church where the Mass is periodically conducted in Malayalam. As I grew older and began to understand the traditions and importance of spiritual connection during the service, not knowing the language posed a formidable barrier. Just imagine attending a service for an hour and a half trying to understand what is going on when you can’t grasp a single word amidst a crowd of uncles, aunties, and friends who are reciting the incantations with ease. Despite the frustration, I convinced myself I had better things to focus on, and moved on.
My second push to learn Malayalam came to me when I went to India with my father after my senior year of high school. I had only visited India twice in my life, the first of which I was too young to remember; consequently, I was ecstatic to finally meet my cousins, and a lot of extended family. When I reached, however, my excitement quickly turned to dread and frustration as more and more people started talking to me in Malayalam. I will never forget the looks on their faces when they realized I still had not learned Malayalam after 18 years of existence. Literally everywhere I went I had to re-explain my situation of not knowing Malayalam, and if they didn’t understand, my father had to translate for me. Absolute embarrassment.
Now that I am an electrical engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh tasked with finding balance between classes, extracurriculars, and career decisions, my life is an absolute mess — trying to find time is virtually hopeless. However, through any holiday breaks or whenever I find myself scrolling through the depths of the internet, I take time to learn Malayalam with baby steps. Setting small goals to motivate myself along the way, I have developed the ability to understand Malayalam, and hold small conversations when greeting someone new.
I share my toils not to exemplify my frustration or justify my lack of concern to learn my native language, but to hopefully portray that it is never too late to learn your mother tongue, or any new language for that matter. In my case, I began to notice the cultural gap between previous generations and myself. I lost myself in the oblivion of my surroundings and ignored the cultural dilution that resulted.
This brings me to the three main impacts that learning the mother tongue can have on an individual.
First, as I personally experienced, picking up your mother tongue leads to preservation of culture at a fundamental level. From communicating with grandparents and extended family, to part-taking in family customs and traditions can enhance your cultural identity. I could relate to this when I left the bubble of my hometown to attend college miles away. I had a greater sense of confidence pertaining to who I was.
Second, (this applies to the broader scope of multilingualism for those interested in learning a new language) learning a new language provides the potential to make a wider impact as your audience expands. People take for granted the numerous opportunities that are opened after the language barrier is broken. This is one of the reasons why employers value multilingualism in prospective candidates as it provides versatility and utility.
Finally, research has proved that multilingualism aids the prevention of cognitive decline down the road. Furthermore, extensive use of multiple languages is known to shape neural architecture — the concept of neuroplasticity. An article on the Consequences of Multilingualism for Neural Architecture says that language processing ranks among the most ubiquitous, yet cognitively complex tasks that we engage in on a daily basis.
What would be the use of simply ranting about the importance of learning languages without suggesting where to start?
Now is the best time to get cracking at it, with virtually infinite resources out there to get you going. One of the many sources I found helpful is called Mango Languages, and its services are free through public library databases. In any free time, practice any new words, whether to yourself, to a family member, to a friend. Practice makes perfect. Every small step makes a difference.
The next time you find yourself caught in the abyss of the internet, the deepest depths of your For You page, the emotional comfort of the Netflix browser, take the initiative to step out of your comfort zone and go for it. At the very least, it is an impressive skill to prove to yourself, to your boss, or the world that you are passionate enough to learn a language. That’s truly worthwhile.
Joshua Poravanthattil is an electrical engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh.