2019-07-18: Why I study (natural) languages                 rak

Though I study programming languages for a living, I also study
natural (human) languages for fun. I think that it is generally
useful for PhD students (and researchers and authors in general)
to study a new language. In this post, I will give two arguments
to support this claim.

== Sense of Productivity

Research is incredibly frustrating: I often spend days bashing
my head against against a problem without making any tangible
progress. During these times, I feel as though I am not
accomplishing anything. After enough days with no sense of
accomplishment, your sense of efficacy takes a hit, and this can
make it hard to stay motivated with your research. To avoid
this, I find it useful to have a side project that gives you a
sense of accomplishment, even when your research is going

Learning a language is a piecemeal endeavour, and every small
step becomes an accomplishment. On any given day, you might
learn a new grammatical construction or learn new vocabulary.
You might read a challenging text or have done some exercises to
test your abilities. These small accomplishments collectively
give you a daily "productivity fix". Though they might not seem
like much, I find them incredibly helpful for staying motivated.

Of course, this effect is not unique to language acquisition:
learning to play an instrument, tending a garden, building
things, etc., can all provide that needed regular sense of

== Clarity in Writing

I have been studying Russian for several years. Learning Russian
vocabulary has required me to reflect on words in my native
languages and to grapple with subtle distinctions between them.
Typically, these were distinctions that I already grasped at an
intuitive level. However, to properly learn new vocabulary, I
was forced to make them explicit. I believe this has helped my
word usage become more precise when writing.

To illustrate this process, consider the semantic difference
between the verbs "умирать" (to die), "скончаться" (to pass
away), and "гибнуть" (to perish). Intuitively, I grasped that
"to perish" was a more dramatic form of "to die". How exactly
are these two verbs different? What does it mean to die versus
to pass away? In English, I would only ever use "to pass away"
to indicate a completed action, e.g., "John passed away last
night". In contrast, I might use "to die" to describe an ongoing
action, e.g., "John is dying". Can perishing be an ongoing
action? How precise are the correspondences between умирать,
скончаться, and гибнуть, and their English counterparts? These
are all questions you must grapple with to learn just these
three words.

Studying a foreign language also helps you understand the many
senses of a single English word. For example, my textbook
translates the Russian verb "доставать" as "to reach". Which
senses of "to reach" does it mean? In English, "to reach" has a
stative sense (the curtains reach the floor), a locative sense
(I reached Ottawa around noon), and a communicative sense (I
reached out to him). To learn "доставать", I had to think
through these senses and determine which one доставать denoted.

In short, learning new vocabulary is a fun way to force yourself
to think about words in your native languages. I find this
exercise very useful, because it helps me choose the words that
best capture my thoughts when writing.

== Concluding

If you study languages, I am interested in hearing about what
motivates you and in hearing if it has had any unexpected
professional benefits. See my contact page for details.

In a future post, I will describe my approach for studying
languages.  I don't claim that this approach will work for
everybody, but it has worked well for me.