Learning A Foreign Language Comes With Wonderful Life Benefits


Hi folks,

About 15 years ago I attended a meeting of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Medical School, post-graduate program, because I had graduate students in that department. This meeting was called to address a number of issues, including the question, “Should the school permit students to learn a computer language instead of a foreign language for their post-graduate language requirement?” I was horrified by the idea. I remembered how much richness my interest in the French language had added to my life, and I argued vociferously against the motion. A was a lone veterinarian in a medical department, and it appeared that I was considered to be a little crazy. The motion was carried, and I remain horrified to this day.

How can you understand other cultures if you have never experienced the challenges and joys of learning their language. In fact, the ONLY reason I entered the field of  Toxicology was because I wanted to speak better French. That is a long story, for another time, but it is, in fact, true. I was never really talented as a linguist, but I reached the point where I could speak and read French fairly fluently. I got to dream in French, read Proust in the original (not easy for me), and finally I started to have thoughts in French that I could not translate completely into English. They were French thoughts. This was an epiphany.

View from my balcony at the Hotel d'Angleterre, Montpelier, France.

Your thoughts are tied to your language, which both limits and expands your mind depending on the subject matter and the history of the respective language. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is “flâner à Montpelier,” which I always do alone. Flâner means to wander or stroll or lounge around or hang out or as Tom Robins says, erleichda, or lighten up, or chill out. To me it means all those things and more. I generally stay at a moderately priced hotel, the Hotel d’Angleterre, where overlooking the tramlines from my chair on the balcony I like to read. I go there to recharge my batteries, to chat to strangers in French, wander round, run a little, and experience the delights of simple French cuisine. This is a truly enjoyable experience for me every time.

Number five Brookfield Road, Bristol, England. Where the author spent his early teenage years exposed to literature, music and languages. I appreciated this much later in life. This picture was taken by a nice man in England, but I forget his name. Apologies to Anon, and will fix if I can.

I was fortunate to be raised in a family where learning a foreign language was considered a natural thing to do. You hear all different languages spoken in England today, but not when I was a youngster in the early 1950s, as England was still recovering from World War II. It was a somewhat linguistically isolated island at that time. Signs of the war, over for 10 years, were all around in the form of bombsites and the truncated remains of iron fences on garden walls. The latter were all cut off to make into armaments. For some reason, I gravitated towards French though, unlike my siblings, I didn’t have any particular talent for languages. At the age of 14, my Mom arranged for me to do an exchange with a family in Rouen.

Rouen was like a wonderland to me, where I took as many monochrome photos that I could afford. The cathedral is on the left. From: http://goo.gl/j34cX

This was the adventure of my lifetime Imagine a 14-year-old boy exploring Rouen, and watching the strange, but fascinating, behavior of French children. I experienced the mind-opening process of observing, first hand, an entirely alien culture and an entirely alien cuisine. The food made a great change from the generally unimaginative fare of the English kitchen, though I still enjoy boiled cabbage from time to time. Much later, I extended my studies, briefly, to Spanish. This allowed me to give a talk in very poor Spanish in Mexico City in 1982. My attempts were very much appreciated as fewer than 10% of the audience understood English. I really enjoyed the Mexican culture, and again the local food was a gourmet experience, much of which was made available through my speaking a modicum of Spanish.

If anyone thinks that learning FORTRAN is a substitute for Spanish, or Russian, or Chinese, they are out of their tiny mind.


-k Your Medical Mind



  1. Don’t you have anything good to say about English food? Don’t perpetuate the myth about bad English food. How can you beat a good Sunday dinner or a full English breakfast? The Americans don’t know about our “cuisine”. Educate them, or at least don’t let them continue with their ideas that English food is no good. It can be VERY good. Our desserts and cakes too.

    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Marian,

      It is true, there is some excellent English cuisine, but it is (or was) very limited in range. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is excellent, but generally the vegetables were boiled or otherwise cooked to death. Part of our enjoyment of that food comes from our habituation to it as children, and nostalgia. These are important ingredients of food, in my opinion.

      How would you like to write an invited post, “In Defense of English Food?” I would like to see that, and you would be my first invited writer.


      Brother Kevin

  2. Yep, I love my chicken curry. Englands current favourite dish.

    One correction. This sibling only ever got a tiny bit of French and a tiny bit of Wessh to the point where I knew I was naturally monoglot.

    However, this has been no limitation as I have given up a’wandering.

    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Trevor,
      I suspect, based upon your poetry, that you have considerable linguistic skills that you chose not to expand upon with respect to other foreign languages. Life is brief, and we can’t do it all, that is for sure.
      The national dish – chicken curry.
      I liked that.

  3. I used fortram and wrote a programme in it when doing my Economics degree. (Forgotten it now.) I used it to calculate levels of concentration in the construction industries. I calculated gini coeficients, entropy, relative entropy and sundry other measures of concentration or proxies for concentration.
    The “language” did exactly what was asked of it. Nothing more was done, nothing less.
    Whilst it is called, loosly, a “language” in fact it does not do what spoken languages can do.
    There is no scope for nuance. No regional accents can be carried by it. There is no scope for the art of the pause nor enhanced modulation of the voice to emphasise a point. It is artistically ultra dull monotone and drab.
    No, fortram is a mathematical tool that applies mathematical logic and can do repeat calculations rather fast, but that is all that it is. This is a “language” that that is not a language. It is as simple and as logical as that.
    So your college was allowing students to opt out of language into maths and logic. How would that enhance their personal communication skills with patients?
    I think I may have met some of them as Doctors.

    This I dedicate to them:-

    The “spleen in bed number four”

    You may feel that you are quite whole
    To doctors you’re just one more chore
    You may feel that you have a soul
    But one day you may be no more
    Than the “spleen in bed number four”

    Yes doctors must be in control
    In all the decisions they take
    So you’ll be deprived of your soul
    And it’s all for science’s sake

    Reduced to an organ you’ll lie
    Somewhere that they “care” for the sick
    As your soul takes flight and you die
    The records clerk notes with a tick

    No matter how hard you have tried
    Despite all you’ve done here before
    Their note will record that you died
    As the “spleen in bed number four”

    Copyright T Morgan 12.11.1998

  4. Kevin Morgan says

    Hi Trevor,

    You get, I get it, but they didn’t. The best book I know on this subject is “Love, Medicine, and Miracles,” by Bernie Seigel. He says that if your doctor won’t give you a hug, move on, as they may be one of the last people to see you alive. I don’t think the medical profession is listening to him, either.



  5. I grew up in a bland, conservative, “whitebread” atmosphere; a cultural vaccuum in the country. There were two major events that turned this “hick” into a cultured gentleman. 1)Moving to NYC and 2)Learning spanish in high school, taking a couple years of it in college, and having the opportunity to speak it regularly with the kitchen staff during my college bartending stint at a popular bar in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. I also dated a dominican girl for 7 years in college which also allowed me to practice. Today I’m fluent.

    Bottom line is that learning a 2nd language is becoming more essential with each passing decade. There is so much to gain from it; the discipline, the sense of accomplishment, and the tremendous infusion of culture that comes with it. I was raised on meat and potatoes and typical american food. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to live in NYC, learn spanish, and experience the melting pot. My children are 7, 4, and 1 year and they’re already eating indian, spanish, and sushi. Life is short, why not savor the world?

    *whitebread (from urbandictionary.com)
    Belonging to the class of bland, clean-cut, middle-of-the-road suburbanite breeders. The Cleavers from the old TV show “Leave It To Beaver” are a familiar archetype of whitebread culture. Compare to yuppie.

    The term implies profound cultural naïvete, blind consumerism, and an unquestioning “follower” mindset. Common trappings of the whitebread lifestyle include golf, Kenny G and Enya CDs, SUVs, an irrational fixation on lawn care, Golden Retrievers, nominally Christian religious beliefs, Old Navy clothing, moderate to conservative political views, bad Chardonnay, equally bad espresso, cookie-cutter houses, Bath & Body Works hygiene products, and very white-collar employment.

    Though whitebread individuals are usually white, the term is not necessarily racial in meaning – the implication lies more with the blandness, predictability, and banality of plain white bread.

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.