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6 ways learning a new language opens your eyes to the world

by May 24, 2019Language

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.

HITT Tip: You will need a good phrase book to help you learn any language. One you can access online is Omniglot. It contains collections of useful phrases in hundreds of languages including sound files for many to assist in correct pronunciation.

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.

HITT Tip: Carry an off-line dictionary of basic terms on your smartphone or tablet. Do not count on having a Wi-Fi connection or connecting with data roaming, however. Offline, we have used dict.cc (free), but you have to think about this in advance, download the app and choose your language pair for download. If you are online, WordReference.com offers a lot of language pairs too.

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!

Learning a language is easier with two.

Charlotte and Dumont spend just 30 minutes a day reading their foreign language book together, and then practicing speaking German together too.

HITT Tip: Immerse yourself in learning. There are numerous online language websites and apps (Rocket Languages is one we have used and find good (it is a paid version) and Duolingo (free) is another app and website language learning program we have used and like. They make learning a new language entertaining and interactive. No online course can possibly replace actually speaking with another human, though, which is why we recommend finding a tutor or teacher or group of fellow students you can practice with and learn from. One online program that offers one-on-one Skype learning with professional instructors or community tutors is italki.com. We have just started using it so cannot speak to its quality other than it gets very strong reviews and recommendations. You can also go to Meetup.com and find language groups in your area of all types and levels.

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.

HITT Tip: Communicating in another language involves much more than learning words. Be sure to read our article, 9 ways to communicate when traveling in a foreign country.

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).

HITT Tip: Maintain your sense of humor and realize that you won’t truly learn a language until you overcome a fear of speaking it, with anyone, and everyone, even incorrectly — sometimes to the amusement of those who are listening. In almost every case, if you try to speak, even if you get it wrong — and I mean really wrong — those you are speaking to will more often than not smile, show appreciation for the fact you were trying to speak their language, and then help you with the correct words. Never hurts to ask for help either.

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.

Read more language learning tips here:

A traveler’s guide to dining and shopping in Germany

A traveler’s guide to dining and shopping in Germany

Reading Time: 7 minutes Eating and shopping in Germany can be confusing when you are trying to decipher unknown words, especially at meals. Our dining and shopping in Germany guide will help you feel more confident the next time you walking into a German market or German restaurant.

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Winner of a gold and silver medal from the North American Travel Journalists Association in 2019 for travel photography excellence. Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) and the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA).

20 Comments

  1. Melody Pittman

    This article makes me laugh because it is so true and makes me realize how lazy we as Americans are, definitely myself included. My husband and I have somewhat learned Spanish since we own houses in Panama, but his country accent makes it sound really funny, but the locals appreciate his efforts. I am better at understanding and speaking it than putting it together, which I need to improve on. Thanks for the tips on ways to get better. I hope my granddaughter learns several.

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      Locals always appreciate efforts, I firmly believe. We once approached a ticket window in a metro station in Buenos Aires and bravely fought our way through asking how to buy and use tickets. The man behind the counter listened patiently — we hope appreciating our efforts — then said in nearly perfect English, “would this be easier in English?” We about laughed ourselves silly. but we tried — and could have fought our way through it if he hadn’t spoken such good English.

      Reply
  2. Fairytale Studios

    I totally agree with all of your 6 pointers. I make it a habit to learn a few simple words or sentences in the local language of the places that I visit. It helps a great deal to connect with the locals and not to feel left out. It’s always easy to carry a pocket dictionary when you are not fluent.

    Reply
  3. Paula

    I worked in a language school for 20 years and was always in awe of our students who pushed themselves with total language immersion. I really is the best way to learn.
    I on the other hand usually only manage how to buy coffee and wine and say please and thank you. I am fortunate enough to travel with my partner who speaks 5 languages but I think this has also made me a lazy language learner.

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      Total language immersion (I’ve done it many times) can be a scary and intimidating experience, but when you tough it out you come so far — always much farther than you think … since you are LIVING it.

      Reply
  4. Punita Malhotra

    Learning a new language is one of the best ways to keep the brain agile. And it makes one so much more confident while travelling. Benefits all the way, like you say in your post.

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      yes, indeed, and confidence while traveling goes a long way.

      Reply
  5. The Holidaymaker

    Oh how I love this post! I love to learn languages, I am just not proficient at them. But I am an advocate as you are to learn enough that when traveling you know the basics, and bonus if you can learn beyond that. I never assume that I can speak English, and do my best to speak the naive language in the country I am visiting.
    I do have an advantage. My informative years I spoke both English and German at home. I am Canadian, living in a bilingual country, where everything is printed in both official langues, English and French. I spent 6 months in Germany during high school and have kept up with my French classes decades being out of the school system. But at best, I am intermediate in both languages. But, for every trip we go on, I do 15 minutes of language learning a day (I use Duolingo) to immerse myself in knowing common words, sayings and exchange of pleasantries. And, maybe I do it to keep my brain sharp too ;).

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      you are awesome! those three languages go a long way!

      Reply
  6. Heather Trimm

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! I absolutely adore and agree with this post! The US is SO behind because other than 2 years in high school, we don’t require any learning of a foreign language. Yes, the first language of the world is English, but that shouldn’t mean that we don’t step out to broaden our horizons for the reasons you stated. We are exact opposites in that I didn’t at all care for German (but still learned to say words in it for trips to German speaking countries) but fell absolutely in love with Spanish and speak, read and write it between a conversational and fluent level (working towards 100% fluency). I also took French and Italian. I love languages so that helps, but it has benefited me greatly in traveling and learning about other cultures and as you said, about myself!!

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      Whatever the language, it helps to know yourself and others. When Americans say, oh, why should I bother with another language, everybody speaks English, I truly wonder how somebody can think that. Even a few words or pleasantries can open cultural doors.

      Reply
  7. Jane Frith

    Agree with this one hundred per cent! I used to speak German quite fluently and regret not keeping up with it, but I always have a go at the language of the country I am in and am still okay with German. It is so important not just to assume other people will speak English; that is quite an arrogant approach, I think. Funny story: a couple of years ago I decided to attend Spanish lessons, but the class was cancelled and I was offered the chance to change to a different class. What was available? Beginners’ Ukulele. So I bought a ukeule! Still a workout for the brain, but perhaps not quite so useful!

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      agreed with the “arrogance” of assumption. Ukulele? well, hm….!

      Reply
  8. Catherine Swartz D'Cruz

    I wish I was fluent in another language and could have taught my kids when they were babies. I’ve studied Latin, French, Spanish and Russian at various times but have lost of most of what I once knew. Your post makes me want to get more serious about Duolingo.

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      Althought not exactly a very globally useful language, I wish my parents had taught me their parent’s mother tongue, Armenian, growing up. It’s always fun trying in different languages — my latest endeavor was Moroccan Arabic. gotta work on that one!!!

      Reply
  9. Ed and Jenn Coleman

    I remember clearly when I left German to take up Spanish. I was sitting in the front of the class (not my normal place) with baggy athletic shorts on because, well, nerd. Anyway, I was off daydreaming and looking backwards up the well exposed legs of my school crush, Jenny (last name redacted for privacy and a poor memory). I was young and virile lad so my body responded well to the stimulation and imagination until I was asked to not only answer a question but stand in front of the class to do so. Oh, in my memory I have changed my answers to include such witty retorts as “But I’m already standing at attention” or quite simply refusing to leave my seat. If force, my bravos alter ego would point back to the back of the class and wave to Jenny, which the teacher couldn’t object to since I had already politely refused.

    I actually thought I was going to graduate college without taking English or a foreign language until I switched out of the college of engineering for physics. I don’t think I gave my French class their do attention when they were taken alongside senior quantum mechanics. In retrospect, learning French proved more useful than finding the eigenvalues of the wave equation.

    Reply
    • HI Travel Tales

      most people honestly don’t give a mandatory language class its due attention, just trying to check it off the requirements list. and how many come to regret it later! Eigenvalues of waves? EEEK! I’ll stick to languages!

      Reply
      • Ed and Jenn Coleman

        The time independent Schrödinger Equation is an example of an Eigenvalue equation.

        The Hamiltonian operates on the eigenfunction, giving a constant eigenvalue, times the same function.

        How do you ever expect to understand space time if you can’t simultaneously solve for position and energy in the same equation? Actually, come to think of it I don’t really understand modern physics. Ok, I’ll go with EEEK! for one thousand Alex.

        Reply

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Travel Tips Language 6 ways learning a new language opens your eyes to the world