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Sunday, 3 April 2016

In Defense of Learning Useless Skills, or, Why You Should Learn Portuguese

So here's a weird thing that's been happening all weekend. Whenever I've mentioned to someone that I'm learning Portuguese, their first reaction has been, "Why?"

My response has generally been, "Why not?", which I'm told isn't always a satisfying answer (my reply to that is invariably also, "Why not?"). But I find it striking that one of the world's most spoken languages is so invisible.

Brazil has 205 million Portuguese speakers, there are 10 million more in Portugal, and this number goes up when you include speakers in Africa (like Angola) and Asia (like East Timor). Brazil is the largest country in South America, and the largest economy, which is why Portuguese is one of the official languages of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc.

This all makes Portuguese the sixth most-spoken language in the world, and Brazil is the fifth largest country by population - more people speak Portuguese than Italian or German, for instance, both languages that are much more popular among language students. And yet here in the US, we don't have any real understanding of the place. Europe has maybe a tiny bit more understanding of Brazil, but I'd argue that (Portugal aside) that's mostly because of all the Brazilian footballers who pitch up to play in Europe.

But I'm not here to talk up Brazil or the Portuguese language, or even to defend why I'm learning it. I'm actually slightly more interested in the question of why I need to defend learning it in the first place.

It turns out to be a really interesting moment for language learning. Like a lot of folks, I'm currently using Duolingo, but also other apps (like Mango or even YouTube). I believe these apps are so popular because they're free and don't require users to learn languages in specific places, at specific times. Duo's particular genius (beyond gamifying the process of language learning) is also to crowdsource the creation of language courses, which means that if you can get together enough people you can design a course in Dutch, Turkish, even Irish or Esperanto.

I think for the dedicated language-learning community, there's probably no language that needs justification. But whereas knowledge of certain languages used to be assumed among the erudite (French, Latin and Greek, to be precise), now there seems to be this idea that you have to have a specific purpose for learning a language, and that it has to be "useful". For instance, I recently saw a post from Robert Reich on Facebook lamenting that he'd learned French instead of Spanish, because of demographic pressures that mean Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the US.

But by knowing French, Robert Reich has access to the wide range of French art, literature and cinema that have come down through the years, and he can go visit not only Europe, but large parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as parts of Southeast Asia (and Quebec or Louisiana). This isn't to slight the literary and cultural canon of the Spanish-speaking world, but I find his comments a tiny bit odd.

In my own case, I chose to learn German for the noblest of reasons (a crush on a German-speaking Swiss girl in high school), but it ended up opening a bunch of doors that I never expected it to - by continuing my German studies in college, I was then able to go study in Germany for a year, which led to my first job, my graduate school course and all of my subsequent jobs.

This is because nobody seems to be learning German anymore (my high school no longer offers it). Yet Germany remains one of the world's largest economies, even if it's not on the level of China or India. Also, while English-speakers are pretty common in Germany, I wouldn't say English-language skills are as universal as they are in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. So if you need to find out what's happening in Germany's pharmaceutical or telecoms sector, you're better off finding someone who knows the language.

(As an aside, I feel this is a great example of why immigration helps a country. As an immigrant in the UK, I wasn't taking jobs away from British graduates - because there apparently weren't any who spoke German and were looking for these kinds of jobs. My employers - three of them in this case - were all forced to hire me, an immigrant, because the supply of native-born German-speakers was insufficient. Food for thought).

The point I'm making with my own history is that if you make an effort to learn a certain skill, regardless of how "useful" it'll be, having that skill opens up opportunities that you may never have considered. Wanting to do something specific with a language skill (or any other skill) is fine, but if someone has to choose between learning a "useful" language and one that interests them, I'd always go with the one that interests them. It'll help them keep going when they run into difficulties, for one thing, and the uses will come up later, when they've mastered the skill.

Just as importantly, it shows the importance of fishing in waters that aren't too crowded. A friend once suggested that he'd want his kids to learn Mandarin Chinese, so that they'd be better placed to get jobs when they grow up. This isn't faulty reasoning, but how will that differentiate them from all the other graduates their age whose parents had the same idea? I told him to get them started on coding instead, because there's still likely to be a skills gap for that when they're older.

I'm finding that, more and more, the thing that makes someone attractive to employers (and possibly to acquaintances, romantic partners, etc) is a mix of skills, rather than specialization in one specific thing that everybody's also doing. And learning languages - particularly the "less useful" ones - is going to be a force multiplier as the globalized world becomes more connected.