6 ways learning a new language opens your eyes to the world
I started learning a new language mostly by chance. Although I signed up for Spanish in high school, I hated it, so instead of dropping, I transferred to German “because all my friends were in the class.”
No, not the best reason really to take a class, or for learning a language, but it certainly introduced me to a linguistic world that has become a part of my soul and changed my life. I not only continued with German, but took on French also, and found that no matter where I travel, I enjoy learning a little bit of the language, from Greek and Spanish, to Japanese and Croatian. Just enough to be dangerous, I like to say. My husband agrees.
Yes, of course, most U.S. residents have this misled belief that if they don’t travel, another language isn’t necessary. And even if they do travel “the world speaks English.” This belief isn’t just found in the United States of course. We recently spoke to a Brazilian living in Germany who didn’t make an effort to learn the local language because (as he put it), “Life is too short to learn German.” Small minded at best, rude at worst.
On a more serious note, a report called “America’s Languages” released in March 2017 found that the inability of four in five Americans to know a little bit of another language is an “emergency” that could harm the U.S. economy, impair our foreign relations and damage national security. (For comparison, two of three Europeans know more than one language.)
Along my linguistic path, I discovered ways that knowing and studying languages have helped me, both professionally and personally. Here are my 6 reasons for learning a new language (You may have others, and we’d welcome you to share them):
No. 6 – You’ll understand and be understood better when you do travel to a different country. For many, at least in the United States, this is perhaps the last reason for learning a language since (unfortunately) a lot of folks never leave their comfort zones or states or North America. Since we are huge proponents of travel, however, it’s not just the act of seeing and visiting another culture that helps you grow as a person, it’s speaking to somebody in their own language. You get a feeling of success (I bought a stamp in Japanese!!), and the “natives” will feel as if you care enough to give it a whirl, mistakes and all.
No. 5 – Your job prospects will broaden. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll head off for a job in China or Russia (although it is possible of course). It may just mean somebody doing the hiring likes your global outlook and the way language can expand your view of the world. In fact, I landed one of my first jobs because the editor who hired me at the large daily newspaper thought my language ability and study abroad was a benefit to insights and thoughtfulness I would apply to my work as a reporter there. And, later in life, my knowledge of German allowed me to move into the translation business – all rather a surprise after taking a language “because all my friends” did.
No. 4 – Learning a language will give your brain a good workout. In fact, I call my continued studies of French – and dabbling at other languages – “brain gymnastics.” If all you do in your spare time is watch TV, play video games, or do other things that are all “drizzling” into your head, you are lacking the things that make your brain actively do a few somersaults and stretches. Try conjugating a new verb and then memorizing it. Try to remember how to buy some cheese at a deli counter in Greece. Try offering a few directions to a lost tourist from a different country you come across on the street or in a restaurant in your hometown. On your mark, get set, go brain cells!
No. 3 – You’ll in fact learn your own language better. Although I had an excellent English teacher in the 9th grade, I truly believe I never really learned the whys and wherefores of English and its construction until I started learning about subjunctive tenses, indirect objects, or present participles in other languages. I became a very good and picky — albeit rather despised at times I suppose — editor and proofreader. Suddenly, you know why a sentence is structured the way it is, and in fact you learn the source of foreign words, prefixes and suffixes you may use all the time in your own language. You just get plain smarter.
No. 2 – You’ll gain insights into how another culture thinks and acts. You’ve likely heard said that Eskimos have 50 words for snow since it’s such a huge part of their everyday. You’ll discover how language structure reveals so much about a culture and its values: German seems to have a nutty structure, but once you learn it, you can actually nearly create your own words – and you realize why the German seem so black-and-white about most things, just as the language is; Chinese doesn’t conjugate verbs; Thai relies greatly on the tones of words; Russians say “drunk” a million ways; despite its romantic tones, the French language is in all honestly quite straightforward in structure (now, that doesn’t mean it’s simple to learn, but you sometimes go searching for a complicated word and all you need to say is something like, “make your suitcase” for repacking).
No. 1 – You’ll learn about yourself, good, bad and even ugly. When I first when to Germany, I was shy and scared to talk for fear I’d make a mistake. It didn’t take long to learn that would get me nowhere fast. So open the mouth and say it, embarrassment and mistakes and all. Step out of your comfort zone, and you find it’s pretty comfortable out there too! I remember the time I went into a post office in France to buy a stamp (there’s that stamp thing again) and was trying to buy a “timbre” but I pronounced the French nasal sound of the “im” incorrectly and nobody understood me. I was forced to explain what it was and the response was “OOOH!!! Un TIMBRE!” (like, duh, isn’t that what I said?). You gain confidence, lose fear or distrust of people and their differences, gain tolerance of others, find an appreciation of things-non-American, and you’ll become a much more thoughtful and insightful person. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Are you ready? Of course you are … start learning a new language today! It will open your eyes to the world in ways you simply cannot imagine.
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