I don’t think that I ever actually shared what got me so interested in languages on my blog or why I ever started in the first place. One might guess that it comes from my interests in culture or travel, and those would both be correct, but those aren’t the whole truth. Just a part of it. In the interest of kicking of a week of language articles in the days building up to International Mother Language Day on February 21st, I wanted to share the story.
From my early university years, I had this almost naïve curiosity that led me to desire to get to know people from different places. I came from a fairly conservative town so it wasn’t really until I started at my university that I was introduced to distant and diverse cultures. I remember back from the beginning I would meet someone from a country then go home and look up a few phrases in their language. It was like an instant way of connecting with them on a subsurface level. An unexpected action that almost inevitably leads to a smile every time. I noted this early. However, it wasn’t until I actually got put into a situation where English wasn’t the dominate language that I realized the importance of having a better grasp of a different language to connect with people.
I remember it like it was yesterday, me, a younger more energetic version in my early twenties, on what seemed like a crazy adventure. Bright-eyed, zealous, with an unyielding thirst for experiencing these unfamiliar cultures and places. I was sitting at a table in a piazza in the Italian coastal city of Catania, Sicily. At my table sat several other Europeans, one from a Nordic country who was fluent in six languages, a few anglophones, and one man from South America. The man from South America only spoke Spanish. I only spoke English and some basic phrases that I had learned in Italian in my few weeks in the country. I had taken the obligatory one or two semesters of Spanish language classes in high school, but retained little more than the ability to say ‘hola’ and conjugate the verbs ‘estar’ and ‘bailar’ into present, past, and future tenses. I still don’t understand how we have language classes that are so ineffective, but we do.
I remember the feelings that I was going through. The South American man, wanted intently to participate in our conversation, but expressed his thoughts through motions. No one else at the table spoke any Spanish. I wanted, and should have easily been able, to interpret the conversation for him even if basic. However, I simply couldn’t. I remember that it took him what seemed like almost a minute to communicate to me that it was his birthday. I am not sure why it became such a heavy feeling, but I felt completely useless and pathetic.
It is from that point that I realized the true social wealth that knowledge of a second language can provide for one, but not just for one’s own good. From a practical view-point, learning a language with a high amount of native speakers is a great expenditure of time as you can see the return on your investment in the sense that you will be able to use it. From another viewpoint, one can not only make new friends but also become ingrained in another viewpoint on life, help others, become a part of another community in addition to your native one. Language is so much more of an ‘us’ thing than a ‘me’ or ‘you’ thing. Language is a link to truth, cultural understanding, and existence.
Returning home from that trip, I felt overwhelmed by the experience that I had, but knew that one thing was for sure, I had to become at least study an additional language to the point that I could reduce the chances of that happening again and be able to connect with others, at least in Spanish. That became my motivation and it was able to keep me driven for a solid 4-6 months of studying lessons almost daily.
Since then, my interest for learning languages hasn’t changed much, it is about connecting with people. As a mono-lingual person you miss out on the opportunity to connect with so many people. I lived that way for a long time, and don’t want to go back. Communication is such a fragile thing. We take it for granted a lot when we are in our native lands. When you have been in a situation where you’ve needed it and didn’t have it, then you likely know exactly what I am talking about. The inability to adequately convey the message that you want is of the most frustrating things I can imagine in life. Even the most basic of life’s joys such as ordering at a restaurant can become immensely complicated if you don’t know what to say. Humans are social beings, and communication is vitally at our core. Even a bit of language understanding gives one insight into deeper cultural understanding, appreciation, and can take you a long way.
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