A Czech proverb says, “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.” Each language we learn reveals to us new abilities, ways of looking at the world, and complexities of our own personality. Are not two of the most rewarding struggles in life to understand others and ourselves?
Many of us have heard about the economic, neurological, and practical benefits of learning a second language. In many cases you may have a fatter paycheck if you are multilingual. You also gain greater cognitive function ,which can help slow the brain’s aging process, and of course, travelling in foreign countries is infinitely easier when you are able to understand the people around you.
But, we are creatures of desire and curiosity. We want to communicate, interact, and learn from the people around us. Do people learn a second, third, fourth etc. language purely for practical benefits? No, that’s not the only reason.
Think back to a time when you were walking through a shopping mall or sitting next to someone on public transportation who was speaking in a foreign language. Did you just completely ignore them? The fact that you even remember noticing that they were speaking in a foreign language is telling of your innate curiosity to understand.
This desire to communicate goes beyond nosiness and boredom. It is indicative of an impulse to understand what another person is saying whether or not you want to respond.
I first noticed this simple curiosity in my fellow schoolmates early this month as I was sitting in a popular dining hall at Brown University.
As part of a whiteboard campaign, members of the Student Language Exchange (SLE) asked students to complete the sentence, “Language is important because . . .” Eighteen of the thirty-nine responses we received were about creating connections between peoples who spoke different languages.
They wanted to build relationships through communication. The overtly practical aspirations to succeed in business, make more money, or get a job were absent in the majority of responses. Most students simply wanted to speak, understand, and be understood.
One person completed the statement by simply saying, “communication with other humans makes us happy.” Another student, “It helps me to communicate with other
people and to express myself.”
Many students used collective pronouns such as “we” and “us,” implying that they believe this to be a universal idea or experience. Their responses were genuine and impromptu, most of them taking no more than a few moments of consideration before writing.Another aspect of language learning that emerged from this campaign is that through foreign languages, humans are able to express themselves in ways they may not be able to in their native language, or they are able to express themselves to other people to create cultural exchange.
Self-expression is perhaps one of the most telling ways we are able to intimate to other people what we desire, understand, and think of the world around us; it tells people who we are.
One student responded saying that language is important because “it enables creativity” and another said, “it facilitates expression.” This seems to imply that, at least to many college students, learning foreign languages opens doors to new methods of self-expression.
Beyond gaining a greater arsenal of ways to express one’s self so others can understand, foreign languages also allow us to understand ourselves better. One student wrote, “Learning another language allows you to understand another culture (and better understand your own).” If learning another language teaches us more about the differences and similarities between our own culture and another, what more can it tell us about ourselves as individuals?
At SLE, we want to open people’s eyes to both the practical benefits and intrinsic values of learning foreign languages. A language is #morethanwords, it is a new life and a new soul for each person who endeavors to learn it.