Why would one learn foreign languages?

Why would one learn foreign languages?

Over my journey of learning Japanese until now, I had various stages of motivation. All started with a ‘I like the country, I want to go there again for holiday, and learn the language a bit’. Right after starting to learn, progress is quick, that motivates very much. To me, the big achievements so far were these:

  • ability to give a self introduction
  • ability to tell what I did in the past week
  • telling a joke in the foreign language, and having the other person(s) laughing
  • meeting the first person where my Japanese level was slightly better than their English level, so settling with a talk in Japanese
  • situations in your life when the canonical word to express it comes out in the language you learn, not your native one
  • giving a presentation in Japanese - in a direct talk one recognizes if the own words are not understood, but in a presentation that is very hard

Others have goals like ‘I want to pass the Japanese language proficiency testi (JLPT)’, which can be taken in 5 different levels. For me, taking the first levels of JLPT was interesting, but towards the higher levels the testes skills (quick reading and answering questions) does not match with my learning goals - I try to optimize for better speaking and understanding in conversations.

Is your god alive?

But what keeps you addicted? Most importantly, a German learning Japanese means to also dive into a different culture. The language concepts are rooted in the culture: unuit have many different words for snow because there was or is a need for these. Meeting language learners, I settled with the idea of 2 big language families:

  • European based ones (English, German, ..)
  • Asian ones (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, ..)

When I as a native German speaker learned Russian and English in school, then these concepts and the culture was not to far away from Germany, learning was relatively easy. Dipping ones toe for the first time into the other language pool is then harder, one needs to look deeper into culture and different concepts.

Exactly this is where the fun starts! You notice differences, question the background, and also think about your native language. My best example for this are the Japanese verbs for ‘to be’. There are 2:

  • iru/いる, used ‘for living things’, like humans or animals
  • aru/ある, used ‘for not living things’, like a chair or a car

Pretty simple definition, right? So then you start to use these, and notice Japanese talking about the god living in Shrines, and saying ‘Kamisama ga imasu’. The English expression is simply ‘gods exist’, but knowing about the difference of the 2 possible verbs, one notices: the verb for living things is used here! So, which verb would you use for the god as referenced in Christianity? Noticing such differences just blows my mind.

By the way, there seems also to be a change in references to robots recently: 10 years ago I saw many references to these with aru, so as nonliving things. Now with speaking capabilities, reactions and so on, references with ‘iru’, so as living things are increasing.

Levels of respect

In German, when you address someone, you have to choose between basically 2 layers:

  • ‘Du’, the more familiar level
  • ‘Sie’, the more formal level

This can already lead to ‘fun’ in many sitiations: for example when you are daily interacting with a customer and address him with ‘Du’, and his boss enters the room, there is an awkwardness in addressing the boss in the higher level.

Entering Japanese studies, this seems like just a childs playground. Japanese society had developed into many more layers, not only fill words are changed to show respect, but whole verbs were newly created to express an activity in just a different level of respect. When I look at something, I would use a different verb than when asking a customer if he has seen my email, and for the emperor again other verbs would be used.

Words just used by one gender

Some things would typically be expressed in one way by men, and in one way by women. Men are likely to refer to meat as niku/肉, while women would be seen as rude to not say oniku/お肉. Words to refer to one self are also different for the genders. When a couple of a male foreigner and female Japanese lives abroad, and a male child gets only to hear his mothers (female style) Japanese, then this is leaving noticable impact on the boys language skills.

You can look at these differences like problems, but they are also fascinating :)

Words to count

In English or German we count things always in the same way: one banana, two bananas. One sheet of paper, two sheets of paper.

In Japanese, the way of counting depends on the object: banana ippon, banana nihon would be used, as banana are long, round objects. ichi mai, ni mai, san mai would be used to count the sheets of paper.

This gets really interesting when for example looking at a Tuna which is caught: still in the water, it’s counted “ippiki”, one living animal counter. When it’s caught and the line attached, it’s counted “ipppon”, so one of round/long objects. The corpse on the market is then “ichou”, and so on. Watch the fun here!

So.. how to count phone calls? Like long/round objects! Probably someone was visualizing phone lines like this.

There is a word.. for that?

Out of different culture, there are words which might not have counterparts with comparable meaning in other languages. For German, a famous example is ‘Schadenfreude’.

I just love Japanese for having words like:

  • あげおとり: When you look after a haircut worse then before
  • 金継ぎ: the art of repairing pottery with gold
  • 森林浴: ‘forest bathing’, recovery by walking in the woods
  • 辻斬: The act of trying out a new sword on a random stranger

I keep a list of these.


I’m constantly amazed of how deep and fantastic proverbs exist, and it sparks joy to understand the proverbs in their native language. Some examples:

  • 馬鹿は死ななきゃ治らない, sometimes stupidity will stay all over the lifetime
  • 五月雨式に申し訳ございません, Sorry, this is dragging on and on.. (It’s pesky like the rain in May/5th month)
  • 頭かくして尻かくさず, hiding the head but leaving the butt uncovered: trying to cover up something, but forgetting a piece
  • 犬が西向きゃ尾は東, literally: when the dog looks towards west, the tail faces east

I collect some here.

Along these lines, I have also found some (just a few) pieces of Japanese writing which I like very much, and am just happy of being able to read them natively. For example, Natsume Sousekis the third night.


Now this won’t be relevant for all languages.. but it’s certainly for Japanese: Kanji. Europeans or Russians use alphabets with up to 50 characters. In Japanese, we have 2 simple alphabets, each with 48 characters. With these, you can write down already all words. Kanji are used ontop, and texts can contain all 3 kinds of characters.

For me, being involved in OpenSource and Linux, it was fascinating to bring Japanese onto the computer. To research input of Japanese characters, to typeset Japanese texts with LaTeX, learn about unicode. Discovering overlap between language learning and existing hobbies is great!

There is more..

What keeps you attracted to language learning?

Last modified on 2022-01-15