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Let Me Persuade You to Learn a Second Language

October 20, 2018

When I was around six or seven, I was gifted a Miscellany- an anthology of hundreds of random facts that nobody probably really cares for. I, unlike many others, was very taken by it indeed. I would learn the facts and recite them to my friends, my family and probably even the dogs. 16 years later and old habits die hard- I still love me a good, random fact. So here’s one to blow your socks off- in the world right now, there exists approximately 7097 languages across 195 countries. That’s just an approximation because that number is constantly growing; we’re constantly discovering new languages- be it an ancient tongue in Greece or the language of a tribe who had ceased to make contact with the outside world.

Of those 7097, I’m fluent in three and have dipped my toes into about four or five more (survival proficiency, nothing more.) Now, I’m not saying that all 7097 are relevant for my every day live, especially as the Perato principle sees that the top 20 languages are spoken by 80% of the world. (Suddenly, I feel a bit better about only speaking 3 of 7097.) Yet, ask yourself, how many of the top 20 languages do you speak? By speaking only one of those languages, surely you’re closing yourself off to 80% of the world. Sure, yes, I know most people speak good English, but I cannot emphasise enough how much learning a language can change you.

In-between questioning if socks are just portable carpets and wondering if a spoon is just a small bowl, the most meaningful shower thought I had the other day was on the topic of languages. It is also the reason I was inspired to write this post. I began questioning if some of the life changing words you are to destined speak aren’t meant to be spoken in English (or native tongue)? What if one day, your most meaningful “I love you” is in French, or the first words you speak to your new born are in Spanish? What if the most powerful hellos and hardest goodbyes are in Russian? Your child/ grandchild might even grow up with a different mother tongue than you did!

My other half is Dutch. His English is impeccable (I thought he was from Chicago when we first met almost three years ago) but let me tell you, my Dutch ain’t so bad either. In fact, one of my initial flirting techniques included a Dutch word attack whereupon I showered him with basic food items of which I’d learnt in supermarkets, awfully bad swear words that cheeky Dutch friends had taught me (hands up if you know what 'neuken in de keuken' means!) and downright random words which I’d picked up from working in a bar in a French resort. (In reality, I couldn’t say much more than “you’re a turtle. Can I have a straw please? Mmm tasty ice cream.” but whatever, I tried.) So, with my Dutch leaving a lot to be desired, it’s his English proficiency which has allowed us to be what we are. Going back to my shower thought, I don’t suppose he ever grew up thinking that he needed to learn English in order to communicate with the woman of his dreams (cough, me, cough.)

Nowadays, we communicate in both English and Spanish, depending on the situation, and I am even learning Dutch, despite if it giving my tongue a hernia. Do I need to learn Dutch? Absolutely not. However, whilst learning a language indeed permits you to communicate with people from other nations, it also sees you develop a new personality in each tongue, and therefore, by learning Dutch, I get to learn a little more about Bob’s native character.  I know- this all sounds very dramatic but it dawned on me when I became fluent in Spanish. Allow me to explain further... when speaking English, I have a very polite personality; I’m sarcastic and I consider myself to be calm and understanding. When speaking Spanish, however, I don’t butter my parsnips. I am much more passionate and I’m admittedly a lot cheekier; I don’t hold back.

From what I can understand when he speaks Dutch, Bob is a lot more childish, cheekier also and startlingly more direct than he is in English. (The things he says at home- I’d have had a smacked bottom!) I love just watching him communicate with his parents and discovering new depths to his character. What I’m getting at is, by learning his language I get to unravel his character layer by layer just like an onion (“Onions have layers!” for the Shrek fans out there.) The tongue with which you speak has the ability to alter your personality drastically- don’t worry, it’s not as if you’ll turn into Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Admittedly, this character development takes a whole lot of time and even more patience but you will stop being the inevitably shy and bumbling foreigner (though people do adore bumbling Brits) and you’ll transform into something that’s slightly foreign to your original self. Perhaps you’ll start gesticulating more and more when speaking Italian, or maybe, for the foreign readers out there who are learning English, you’ll find yourself more introverted -English is an introverted language and harder to speak after all! What’s funny is that I’ve just realised I even give a variation of my name when I speak different languages- I no longer insist on ‘May-ah’ but willingly introduce myself as ‘My-ah’ in Spanish and French. Maybe 'Myah' is my alter-ego…

On a final note, I remember in my old French classroom at school, there was this proverb on the wall that compared being a monoglot to locking yourself in one room of a mansion- just think about how much of the world, how many people you’re locking out by speaking only one language. Just think about how many people you could meet, how much you could learn by just stepping out of your comfort zone and learning 20% of a foreign language. It could change your life.