Knowing languages is important. Everybody will agree, I think. That’s why governments stimulate foreign language learning. The value of language is that it’s a way of exchanging meanings with other people. Language is a passport to the world: It helps you discover meanings that other people have used for building up their social worlds and to enter into relationships with them (and they with you).
A language is not limited to a certain area or culture. Everyone can learn every language, despite his or her geographical and cultural background; and isn’t it so that some languages, like English – from England to India – or French – from France to West-Africa – are used in different cultures? Nevertheless languages express cultural attainments. It’s a well-known that Inuit languages have many words for expressing types of snow, more than any other language. And Dutch, to take my own mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, for example, English. If a language is spoken in several parts of the world, it can happen that variants or dialects develop adapted to the local cultures and habits. So there is a narrow relation between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture, although it doesn’t need to be a one-to-one relationship. However, it seems not too bold to say that a language expresses the identity of the bearers of a culture. This is one reason why it is bad policy to forbid a minority language in order to try to prevent a separatist movement. Just the official and practical recognition of a regional language can help prevent that such a region wants to become independent from the country it belongs to: If you are free to express your culture, there is less reason to separate.
All this makes clear why learning languages is important: The more languages you know, the easier it is to communicate with people belonging to other cultures but also the easier it is to understand these other cultures. Learning a language is always a kind of introduction to a culture – not counting the fact that it often leads to a growing interest in the culture of the speakers of the language you learn.
And on the individual level? Many people initially grow up in one language and only later– at school age or thereafter – they learn a second one and maybe a third one, a fourth one or even more. This makes that there is a narrow relationship between a person’s native langue and identity. Sometimes this pops up in different ways. So a person in danger of life or in other such difficult circumstances may unintentionally begun to speak his native language or dialect when being in another language environment. And you feel yourself more at ease when speaking your native dialect or language. So why giving yourself the trouble of learning other languages in case there is hardly any reason to expect that you’ll use them? Or why keeping fresh the languages learned at school if you actually don’t need them? For instance, for native speakers of English there is no practical (communicative) reason to learn other languages, for their mother tongue has become the lingua franca in almost every corner of the world (although knowing the local language will help you understand the local culture, as said). This may be true but as it has come out knowing several languages is not only convenient: Just as physical exercise and a good physical condition supports your physical health and helps you to recover after an illness, learning and knowing several languages is good for your mental health. It trains your brain and keeps it fit. It helps you to see the world from other points of view and understand other cultures. And you see how difficult it can be for immigrants and tourists to learn and speak your language. Is that “all”? Certainly not, for just as physical exercise makes your body stronger and increases your capacity for recovery after illness, so does mental exercise for your brain. Learning, enlarges your neural network. So your network of neural connections is more extended if you have learnt more languages. Training your brain has a preventive effect (like lessening the chance to get Alzheimer’s disease), but it can also be useful if you have to recover from a brain disease. For as recent research has shown, your chance to recover from a stroke is much bigger if you have learned at least one other language. According to a new study, bilingual stroke patients were twice as likely as those who spoke one language to get back their normal cognitive functions. Why? The reason for the difference appears to be a feature of the brain called “cognitive reserve”, or, in other words, just the extra network of neural connections you have built up by your language study. Keep fit so learn a language.