Languages are not the focus of a British Education, as I had. With the exception of the English language, whose literature and grammatical nuances are taught with pride. In High School, I suffered through seven years of French lessons and three of German and in both languages I have maintained a mere handful of words. In other words, I effectively learned nothing. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that we learned based on a curriculum, following predominantly English textbooks to learn another language according to certain hoops we would have to jump through to pass the end of year exam.
In the past five years I have learnt two new languages: Hebrew and Spanish. Having always considered myself terrible at languages based on my exam grades, I have found that truthfully, I’m satisfyingly mediocre. This realisation led my to examine the different methods of learning which resulted in success and failure. The ‘secret’ is simple: to learn a language, one must immerse themselves in it as much as possible. When I studied Hebrew, it was every morning, five days a week and (here’s the deal breaker) taught entirely in Hebrew. It may have been simple Hebrew, but not one English word was muttered in that class. Similarly, when I learnt Spanish it was by necessity: I married into a South American family who spoke in Spanish constantly and spoke wobbly English. The immersion process was tricky, but after a couple of years I found myself following conversations and feeling good about it!
It’s not only the feeling of achievement that learning a new language brings, though that feeling is pretty great, it changes the way you view language as a whole. Instead of purely functional, it becomes a reflection of society, a glimpse into culture and a new way to express your personality.
I first realised this with the Spanish phrase ‘te quiero’. This literally means ‘I want you’, but is used to say ‘I love you’ lightly, as opposed to ‘te amo’ which means ‘I love you’, as we would say it in English. People use ‘te quiero’ to express their love for a close friend, family member or, most interestingly, to a partner that they can see themselves falling in love with in the future. It’s much more meaningful than ‘I like you’, yet less intense than ‘I love you’. In my experience, Latinos are more passionate, expressive people than the British. From uncensored affection to sultry closeness when dancing the tango or salsa, they are far more tactile and expressive, so it makes perfect sense that they have multiple expressions for love. Similarly, the word ‘waldeinsamkeit’ in German alludes to the feeling of being alone in the woods. This word is unique to that language, and evidently sourced from the landscapes of the country. In Japanese, there is particular and unique word for a pushy mother who pressures her children to achieve well academically: ‘kyoikumama’, reflecting on important cultural values.
For travel, knowing the official language makes for a startlingly different experience; you are not a simple tourist observing from the outside, but have the ability to enter the inside and all the knowledge and recommendations that come with that. Moreover, locals are overjoyed when you converse with them in their own language, they are overwhelmed at the efforts you make and thus welcome you warmly. Plus, it’s always fun to show off your perfect pronunciation of food dishes in restaurants.
There are far more benefits, however, to learning languages. According to a study from the University of Chicago, one tends to make more rational choices if they are bilingual, by approaching the problem in two tongues, you automatically have a buffer to ensure you think twice and sensibly. Similarly, a study from the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain showed that bi or multilingual people are more observant. Various studies have been conducted as to the effect of learning a language, or being multilingual, on Alzheimers disease; for adults who speak two or more languages, the average age for the first signs of dementia is 75.5, but for those who speak only one language, the average is 4 years younger.
Moreover, The Economist pointed to the financial benefits of speaking a few languages. Not only does this broaden your employment options, make you an appealing candidate and impress in interviews It is said to add 2% onto your annual salary – not too shabby. Employment-wise, being multilingual also allows you to work abroad, for many a dream scenario.