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 poorly.

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 accomplishment.

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.


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.