July 27, 2017

8 Reasons Why Language Learning is Awesome

I nodded with attentive gusto. I had no idea what this guy was saying.

I had attempted to start a conversation based on my high school Spanish with a Cuban. In the middle of a German beer hall.

The Cuban was clearly happy to be rattling on about something "somos" and "Havana" in his own language. I began wondering if it would have been better for us to try to talk with our ridiculous immigrant German.

Instead, I told him I could speak French. Well, he understood my, "I speak France," to mean that I speak French, so it all worked out.

I was trying to win a few culture points.

German was not on my list of languages to learn, but here I am, in the heart of Bavaria. Spanish, on the other hand, has always been lingering there, just half of a lifetime away to when I was fourteen and it was way too easy at school. French had my heart from an early age, and all those hopes and dreams were fulfilled during our time in France. Add in the number of times I like to head off to Portugal and Italy, and we may as well toss those two Latin languages in there, too.

It's thrilling, terrifying, and quite the challenge. I will never be fluent in all of these languages. But I can reasonably expect to be able to order off of menus, get through basic introductions, and ask for directions in all of these languages within the next five years.

I have to consciously remember which language I'm speaking for the word "but" because I even mix that up in English now. There are also some phrases in French and German that just better express what I'm trying to say. Or, like when talking with the Cuban, having to go through French out loud, German in my head, saying the Spanish word for "corn," and finally landing on pero.

It's all in there somewhere.

Pero - mais - aber - but why is it important to learn any extra languages, let alone several?

1. To Respect

Spanish was not as important to learn in California when I was in high school as it is today. I had no reason to speak another language, and none of my family or friends were bilingual. Anyone who did speak more than just English was some kind of super-brained freak with too much free time (is that how some people view me now?!). What I didn't realize was that by avoiding languages other than English, I was disrespecting the value of cultures outside of my own. I don't think every monolingual person is disrespectful, but when we put effort into learning another language, it definitely shows a respect for the foundation of another culture.

2. To Understand

With respect comes a level of cultural understanding. I can't tell you how many times I understood situations and people so much better because it was explained within the context of their language. Translations don't always exist for every word, and understanding goes so much deeper than an explanation. I want to understand different people from different places, and the best way to do that is by meeting them at their own language level.

3. To Conquer Fear

Trying to learn, let alone speak, another language is a daunting task. We have to overcome our own fears of failure and looking stupid in order to grow and learn. Nobody speaks a foreign language well after one week. Not even one year. We have to be brave and really commit to the struggle because the journey only gets better as it continues.

Another fear to conquer can sometimes be on the listener's end. They aren't afraid of your poor handle of their language, but many times now I have been able to help beat down the American stereotype of forcing English out of everyone. Instead of making a foreigner uncomfortable with their performance in your language, we have the chance to eliminate this fear by choosing to speak their language instead. I'm also no longer afraid to go to new places because of the languages I have learned or am learning...or to the places where I don't speak the language at all. Conquering fear over and over again has braced me with the courage to be able to communicate no matter the situation.

4. To Communicate

With language sharing, we get to ask a lot of questions about another culture and world. But the curiosity about what's different usually exists on both sides. People want to know about where you are from and what your world is like, too. Anytime we are able to communicate in another language about our home culture, we open up more channels of understanding and openness between humanity. We also usually find out that despite our minor differences, we have more in common than we originally believed.

5. To Create Opportunities

Learning another language opens up doors for opportunities to travel, live, and work in places outside of your home country. It also creates opportunities for work with those language speakers who happen to live and travel in your home country, too. An "opportunity" usually serves as word for creating employment options, but it just as much an opportunity to have a conversation, give directions, and share a meal with someone in another language.

6. To Make (and Keep) Friends

This byproduct of language learning is the most rewarding. I count myself very fortunate to have been able to make friends even before learning any words in another language with the universal communication of smiling and laughing. But with every step forward in a language, my relationships have grown deeper and more meaningful. Having friendships in other languages has also made me even more thankful for the friendships I have with other English speakers, and especially for my best friends from my pre-expat life who can understand me even in my fastest slang-ridden English.

7. To Keep Secrets

Yes, this is definitely an awesome reason to speak more than one language! This is also probably the most fun reason because it's like your own little code language club that you get to be a part of when you are traveling or just in the company of others who do not speak whatever language you have in common with your friend. I enjoy doing this the most with my Swiss friend, Julia, and now Marc and I can share some secrets in German around our English-speaking friends, too.

8. To Be More

We always hear about how important it is to be a "lifelong learner." I felt like I was on the learning curve during my youth education, and that continued at a different pace during my university studies. When I directed sports camps and coached college volleyball, I felt like my learning curve jumped from basic academics to business, financial, and management studies. After moving overseas, I have learned that all of that was super easy. The learning curve of living in another culture and language is so much steeper and constantly new obstacles appear. It is an unprecedented area of growth in my life, and I am so grateful to be pushed and challenged in such a multi-dimensional way. I am more now than I was before, and communicating in more than just English has been a huge part of that.

My first teammate that I met abroad, Martina the Czech volleyball player, told me right after I moved to Belgium, "The more languages you speak, the more people you know."

She was so right. We can say all we want about knowledge, culture, and so on. Ultimately, language learning connects people to each other. That is the single best way we will ever invest the time we have been given on earth: into each other.