You know, before I started studying foreign languages, I wouldn’t give that question much thought. I’d throw out the usual “Language is important because it’s how humans communicate” and get on with it. That, of course, is definitely true, but when I seriously started studying languages, I discovered a more involved answer.
Language, in all its forms – verbal, written, and physical – is not only a way to communicate, but also a way to live the culture where a language is spoken. The problem lies in that people hold strong associations with what exactly a “culture” is, and how it relates to a particular language.
Let’s take Arabic, for example. It can be a fascinating language. But the minute I take one step into being interested in it I get resistance and can hear the echoes of “Terrorist!”, “Anti-American!”, and the like. Russian and Chinese hold connotations of communism, German of Nazis, Japanese of evil kamikaze, Spanish of dirty illegal immigrants.
Though, some of these stereotypes have a certain element of truth to them. Language helps shape a person’s identity. People tend to hold fast to their identifying characteristics. Obviously, not every speaker of every language is conformant to these stereotypes, but some may adhere to them just because it gives them a sense of belonging to their country or to their ethnic group.
And in the context of foreign language learning, one’s personality may be altered, even if only slightly. An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed since starting Japanese is that I tend to be more humble and find that other people seem more “pushy” than they used to. Exposure to another culture can change one’s inner self, and that’s why one may be unsuccessful at language learning: because, perhaps subconsciously, one is afraid of losing part of the things one identifies with.
Perhaps it isn’t about ignorance or lack of knowledge as much as it is about fear. What if you lose who you are?
I suppose a better question would be, “What if you change who you are?”
So, why is language important? Besides the paramount ability to communicate, given the chance, it can open up completely new worlds. To learn another language does not mean to leave one’s base culture; rather, it enables a process of “reality expansion” to see things from another perspective.