5 Lessons Language Learning Can Teach You (Other than Language)
It can be very easy to slip into an ego-driven way of learning languages. I find this to be true of many polyglots I cross paths with while traveling. They pick up new languages as if they were arm-candy trophy wives posing on their tongues.
It’s off-putting, to say the least.
Learning languages, if you’re really listening to it and truly embodying it, isn’t about the ego at all. It’s about learning about other people, other systems of thought, about compassion, about not always being right or better than the other. Here are few lessons I’ve learned during my journey through multiple languages. Ones I encourage you to begin noticing on yours as well.
If I want to fully understand something in Spanish or if someone has said something too quickly, I have to ask. Instead of pretending like I understand and replying with the wrong answer, admitting that I don’t have it all together right away is better than pretending like I did and then giving myself away.
When learning a language, you have to start from square one. You have to learn like a child would. This forces you to admit that you don’t know everything, that you are, indeed, fallible. Vulnerability is your new language’s best friend.
Languages are an entirely new way of looking at the world. They are more than new words to label the same objects. For example, the Thai way of reading time is by the phases of the sun. There are seven words for each phase, starting with the hours before dawn, what is in English 1AM to 5AM. This is a different perspective than the US English version of reading time, which only has AM and PM. It reflects how Thai people view time, and how their language and their days are structured around natural elements.
Language is one of the few ways one can really get an idea of how another culture sees an issue we all live with, thereby shifting our perspectives that much more.
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When our language learning is guided by the need to “know” another language or “speak” it as well as we do our first languages, the ego is in the way. And when the ego is in the way, the danger of transferring the same bad habits you do in your first language onto another one is at stake.
Language is always about the other person. When you’re listening to them or they’re listening to you, you need that other person. You need that other person to complete the transaction of a conversation.
So when you’re lost in a sea of new vocabulary and grammar exercises, remember it’s always about sharing your ideas about the world. One way or the other, that’s always the goal.
How do you feel when you’re speaking another language? Does your humor come through in it? Does it change somehow?
Speaking another language also gives you new a perspective about yourself. Take note of this. What shifts/changes/feels differently in each language you speak? How are you different than you are when you speak your first language? How are you the same?
Tucked within a language are the secrets of a culture. Learning these is a privilege. Sometimes it can lead to discovering more about the dark history of a language, its culture, and its people. When I started sitting down to learn my parents’ native Filipino, I found it too easy every time I ran into English and Spanish words on a lexicon of new vocabulary. This made me sad, but I had to remember who I was learning the language to engage with: my family.
Don’t ever take what you’re learning beneath the surface of mundane grammar and phrases for granted. You’re learning the secrets of what is whispered between peoples other than your own. And those secrets aren’t there to stroke your ego. They’re there to preserve cultures getting lost or bought out under a wave of globalization and capitalism. They’re being passed down to survive another day.
What lessons have you learned while learning languages? Share them in the comments below!