Learn a Foreign Language and Change Your Life

About Carly Fierro

Carly Fierro is a young freelance writer and aspiring novelist who's had a strong interest in language and translating ever since she started taking French in college. She loves that the internet allows people and cultures to connect instantaneously in ways never before imagined; without the internet, she never would have been able to start her collection of untranslatable-to-English words and concepts. If you are looking for more of her writing, check out her blog, Pongra, or follow her on Twitter as @carlyfie.

If you already speak English, you can consider yourself very lucky. In a sense, English is the lingua franca of today’s world. When two foreigners whose native tongues are not English try to communicate, the first thing they will do is default to English, which has become the unofficial second language the world over.

This opens up a lot of doors for native English speakers, but one thing you will quickly realize is that although most people can communicate in English on a rudimentary level, the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t actually speak it well enough for any meaningful interaction.

sunflowergirlThis is why Europeans often speak three or four languages perfectly fluently. It is a curricular requirement in most of Europe that prepares people to be citizens of the world—not just their country. Put this in contrast to Americans, who more often than not speak English and nothing else.

You Can Get By with Only English

But would you want to? The cultures of the world are as varied as they are rich. For the most part, culture and language are inextricably enmeshed. If you want to truly understand a Frenchman, then you will need to understand his language. This goes beyond just translating words, as sometimes there are simply no translations that can effectively convey the meaning of words.

An example you’re already familiar with is the German word schadenfreude, which describes the enjoyment one gets from the misfortune of others. There is no equivalent in English. In this case, the word has been adopted into the English language, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg when trying to parse the inner life of a German speaker. Schilderwald is the feeling of bewilderment one gets when a place is hard to navigate because of confusing street signs.

Every language has its own words with meanings that explain the nature of its speakers, and the only way to truly get into their heads is to learn their language. The Czech have a word for calling someone on their cell and hanging up before they pick up so that they’ll call you back; it’s prozvonit. On Easter Island, tingo means you’re borrowing things without returning them until you’ve taken everything a person owns.

And the Japanese have wabi-sabi, the beauty inherent in the transcendence of life. The Hebrew language has the word et, which is so foreign that it cannot even be described in English, let alone translated.

To truly learn a culture, one must first understand its language.

Other Good Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language allows one to read books without the filter of translation. The translation process does more than just change each word into its analogue in the target language. It changes the text to flow, and it often takes a new shape after the fact.

As your vocabulary increases, you will find that you have a greater ability to express yourself—even if others can’t understand. There is an immense pleasure in being able to better describe your experience of the world.

Knowing a foreign language makes one more valuable in the work force and is an incredibly influential skill to have on a resume.

Learning a foreign language doesn’t have to be hard. Fully half of the English language has Latin or French roots, which makes it very easy to learn a romance language, such as French, Italian or Spanish. The other part of the language stems from Germanic roots, making German another easy-to-pick-up language for Americans.

All it takes is a small time investment to open up a broader experience of the world.

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Some Amazing Comments

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Comments

  1. The big problem I find is that English is so widely spoken that if I try to speak the local language the person I am speaking to quite often will start to speak English, as this a fairly common second language throughout the world. I tend to persevere with my far from perfect Swedish, for example, but it would be easy to give up as they are more likely to speak English better than I speak Swedish.
    Roberto recently posted..Spanish for Beginners: What Useful Expressions Will Help You Get Started?

  2. What took me a long to to overcome in learning a new language was the shyness of trying to practice it when I knew I was going to make mistakes. Reading and silently practicing only goes so far. Going out there and making mistakes ( and getting laughed at a lot) was a game changer for me.

    Great post Carly!

  3. Thank you Carly,

    I think one of the best expressions I get from people in the new countries I travel is when I attempt to speak their language! They know I don’t need to because english is so highly available, but it shows that I have appreciation for their culture and way of life. Always highly received =)

    Safe Travels, and enjoy your week! =)
    Kael recently posted..Only Quality People – 6 Tips For Healthy Friendships

    • Thank you for your comment Kael! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. I agree – I always try to pick up a few phrases wherever I go. When I visited Kiev I think it was always a pleasant surprise for the grocer or my waiter when I would thank them in Ukrainian! :)
      Carly recently posted..Finding the Good in Even the Worst

  4. Interesting take Carly – it’s fascinating how certain words simply don’t translate well into another language so we often take the closest concept we have and use that…which is why much can be lost in translation.

    You gave me food for thought…thank you.

    Elle
    Elle recently posted..Find Peace In Change

    • Thanks for your comment Elle! In futuristic imaginings of the planet (think Star Trek for example) everything has homogenized into an English-speaking society, and I desperately hope that isn’t what happens! We’ll lose so many unique points of view if that happens!
      Carly recently posted..Finding the Good in Even the Worst

  5. Thanks Carly,

    I speak 3 languages and I can tell you that it is a blessing!
    Ade recently posted..The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.

  6. I agree speaking English can get you by when you are in another country, so we can be lazy about learning another language. But what I took from your article is the difficulty we can have in communicating with each other. Even if we speak the same language, so much can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.

  7. I think as the world gets smaller – in the sense of the global economy (business and travel) it will be more important than ever to learn multiple languages. While it is true you can get by with just English and pieces of other languages, you can’t truly understand the other person’s thoughts/feelings without fully understanding the language.
    Don @ BreathofOptimism recently posted..How to Start Your Day Off Right

  8. Someone once told me this joke.
    What do call someone who speaks three languages?
    Multilingual I said
    What do you call someone who speaks two languages i said
    Bilingual I said
    What do you call someone who speaks only one language?
    Don’t know I replied
    ‘English’ he said.

    Too easy for english speakers to get by without learning another language.
    joe barnes recently posted..Why you’ll never ‘MAKE IT’ until you Learn this!

    • I love this joke! I think there are a few variations on it, I’ve definitely heard the same of Americans.
      Carly recently posted..Finding the Good in Even the Worst

    • Joe, I think — no, make that,I KNOW — you can very easily replace
      “English” in your punch-line(!) with “French”. My experience is that they,
      too, cannot, will not, or just plain refuse to speak any other language except their own. Their ignorance (in this case, at least) is excelled only by their arrogance.

      • Ha! I heard the same variation on this joke when I studied abroad in France. I don’t know; for every French person I met who stubbornly refused to speak anything else, I met several who were happy to practice their English. But maybe that’s because I was in Paris. :)
        Carly recently posted..Finding the Good in Even the Worst

  9. Hi Carly
    this is thought provoking.
    Language is a benefactor for all of mankind.But equally, it is an impediment as well,especially when you dont grasp the context.
    One language can convey a concept in a single syllable or a word,while another language might take a lot of groping and drawling to arrive at the same point of reference.Languages do carry inherent limitations.This is particularly evident when literature,and poetry is being translated.Some translations will always fall short of the true essence of the author’s context.
    Despite that i agree with you that English is fast turning into a cosmic language,”global” is only a half truth now.Because I feel pretty sure Martians out there, on the neighbouring planet, are trying to master it as fast as possible!
    Well Thanks
    richmiraclefiles recently posted..COMMIT YOURSELF TO WORK IF YOU’RE SERIOUS ABOUT PROGRESS

    • Thank you for your comment! Really, no language can truly grasp everything we want to say, and our understanding of different concepts will always be different – that’s just the nature of trying to put words to the firing of the synapses in the brain. But knowing more than just one language is a start!

      There’s nothing like being able to read classic works in the original language. :) And who knows what those Martians are up to….
      Carly recently posted..Finding the Good in Even the Worst

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