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Why Do We Learn a Language?

Hello everyone. This is my second post, and this time, the content will be a bit more opinion-based (or academic-based) than my last one. In this post, I would like to write my opinion about why we learn a language. 

From the perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure

What do you associate with the word “corona”?

While some people think of the Corona beer, I assume most people nowadays think about the coronavirus (COVID-19). But what’s the relationship between the word corona and the meaning of corona with which we associate?

The Swiss-born Fernand de Saussure considered language to be a symbolic expression (signifier) and a symbolic content (signified), the two being as inseparable as the two sides of a coin. The signifier is a letter or sounds like “Corona” and the signified is the content meaning or image of “Corona”. Human beings use language with the letter “Corona” (signifier) and the meaning that we associate with the word, such as that of “enjoy” or “sadness.”

This signifier and the signified are inseparable, but their relationship is arbitrary. This is obvious given the fact that different words are used to describe (almost) the same thing as a dog in Japanese and a dog in English. This is called arbitrariness. In other words, it was okay to call the dog “Kog” instead of “Dog” but it was decided as is.

Now that we have briefly discussed the concept of what Saussure presented. How does this relate to the meaning of learning a language?

Meaning of learning a language 1

The first thing is that you will be able to think deeply about language. By using language to think about language (i.e. metacognition/metalinguistic awareness), we can take a holistic view of the language we use in our daily lives. When you were a child, you were most likely to learn your mother tongue subconsciously (i.e. natural acquisition).

Without learning a language, there would be little opportunity to think about language. Thinking deeply about language forces us to consider all sorts of questions: why do only humans speak such a complicated patterned language? what does it mean to acquire a language? what is language? how can we communicate? why does this person use this language? etc. This act of “questioning and thinking about the obvious” will expand human knowledge and enrich our lives and activities.

Meaning of learning a language 2

The second reason to learn a language is that you will be able to express subtle nuances. The word “interesting” in Japanese can be “beautiful” and “interesting” in English. If you only know Japanese, it will be difficult to understand this difference. This is because people discriminate things by giving them names. By giving a thing a name, the signifier and the signified will emerge and they construct a word.

Meaning of learning a language 3

Finally, you can learn about culture through language. There is no such thing as an “honorifics” in English (although there are many polite expressions), whereas honorifics are common features in Japanese. And in Japan, there is a cultural norm of respecting the elderly.

In this way, language influences culture and what we think about it (and vice versa). This is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea can also be seen in the recent political correctness movement (using a socially acceptable vocabulary, such as a police officer instead of a policeman.

You will also be able to understand concepts that can only be explained in a specific language (e.g. Wabi-Sabi). It is essential to learn a language in order to preserve various language-specific concepts and cultures.

If we focus on language further, we can see some interesting things. This is the story of a boy and his father.

A boy and his father had been in a car accident and were rushed to the hospital. The doctor who performed the surgery said, “It’s my son!”

Do you understand the situation?  What does this mean? 

I’m sure many of you are familiar with it, but the doctor was actually his mother. As the words “doctress” and “doctor” imply, the word “doctor” probably encompasses the concept of “man,” the signified. Linguistics makes this distinction between a doctress and a doctor as a “marked” and an “unmarked” in order to make the difference clear. A marked form indicates, in simple terms, that it is special, and an unmarked one indicates that it is “general”. This kind of detailed analysis of language reveals the culture and structure of a society.

In terms of social structure, language also distinguishes hierarchies in some cases. The sociolinguist William Labov’s famous work in a department store found that customers used different pronunciations depending on their social hierarchy. Differences in pronunciation are also suggested in the movie My Fair Lady. There is no doubt that learning a language can lead to new realizations about culture and social structure.


I have discussed three points from Saussure’s view of language and why we learn a language. I hope this makes you rethink the meaning of learning a language. 

Hello. This is Takuya Higuchi. My pronoun is he. I am majoring in linguistics at Waseda University. I like singing a song, reading a book, and playing baseball. I am currently teaching English and Spanish in some high schools. Nice to see you all!
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