Who needs language skills anyway?

Illustration of a frustrated person sitting at a table, struggling to read and write.
Jericho Tang/Staff

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I recognize English to be my first language, much to the chagrin of my Mandarin-speaking parents. But I’m not a native English speaker. Perhaps because of that, I have come to discover just how important English is to my life.

My English knowledge developed during my childhood — I constantly had my nose buried between the pages. And I meant constantly. In the bathroom, at the dining table, while walking in the corridor, in bed at night with the lights off.

The more I appreciated my language abilities over the years, the more difficult it became to imagine just how it might feel to live in a world that doesn’t piece together as smoothly as a well-formed sentence. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that poor language skills will hold us back in life.

Language is everywhere. It manifests in every part of our existence, sometimes blatantly, but oftentimes so subtly we don’t even notice it.

Essay writing, formal email writing, public speaking — these are obvious. Slightly less apparent are normal communications, when we chat with acquaintances, friends and loved ones. But the most intangible, yet indispensable, form of language occurs when it’s just us, in our own heads.

What are thoughts without words?

As someone who doesn’t think in pictures (I suspect I may have aphantasia, and I’d love to learn more about it if anyone wishes to share), words are critical in my mind. All I’d have otherwise are smudges of colors and impressions — bluntly put, nothing much at all.

Here’s where language mastery comes into the picture (or floats into the blur, in my case).

Have you ever felt some really profound revelation hit you, yet found yourself stuttering, floundering and searching blindly for words to capture it? How many times have you been beaten at sharing a game-changing insight, just because you were slow in forming sentences? Worse still, have you gotten into trouble with your partner or boss because you somehow didn’t express what you really meant?

It’s not that we don’t have ideas. Most of the time, we just don’t have the language to manifest it, even to ourselves.

Higher levels of comfort in dealing with chunks of words mean that we spend less time decoding what we read and hear. We comprehend things faster. We are better able to draw links between concepts, as disparate ideas grow a little more similar with thorough understanding and a trusty mental thesaurus. We collect more knowledge at higher speeds, and thus become more informed, well-rounded citizens of the world.

Language proficiency contributes, furthermore, to increased self-awareness and control. When we have the words for it, we can quickly and accurately express our feelings. Emotions made more tangible are emotions identified and recognized, and thus emotions better dealt with. Trust me: Our loved ones will thank us for this one.

Last semester, I took CS 61A as someone with absolutely no coding experience. I spent a long time being utterly confused and desperately seeking help with my work. Turns out that Python, like any other language, just wanted to be understood and mastered before it would work to my advantage. Who would have thought?

Language learning is not complete just because we’ve graduated elementary school. Every single one of us can, and should, keep polishing our skills. I know I am definitely working toward it. Simply reading more articles (like this one!) can help us become more comfortable (especially you, someone who skips over every word in favor of the pictures).

And if you truly believe you can’t improve any further in one language, why not pick up another? It will be a whole new world.

Contact Shin Chan at [email protected].