Cartoon © Natalie Dee www.nataliedee.com
I read an excellent article about the benefits of language learning in Tuesday’s Telegraph. I can remember a time when the only reasons to learn another language were to converse with your relatives back in the Old Country or to get a job with the Canadian government. (We have two official languages here in Canada; bilingualism is pretty much necessary to work for the Feds.)
Globalization and increased international mobility have led to a surge of interest in other languages. Americans are learning Spanish, Westerners are learning Chinese, and everyone is learning English. The world has become one big language lab, and I love it.
At my local library a couple of months ago, for example, I was flagged down by a Mexican gentleman and asked to please explain the sentence “Get out of here, you bum.” That led to an impromptu lesson on the various meanings of the word bum, which entertained the people around us so much that a couple of them chimed in with examples of their own (complete with actions.) It was the pedagogical equivalent of a flashmob.
Having just moved to Canada, my Mexican amigo needed English in order to function effectively in his daily life. Others have different objectives. In fact, the UK Subject Centre for Languages has compiled a list of 700 reasons to study languages, including professional advancement, ability to communicate with friends or loved ones, and increased appreciation of the arts. The scientific community has presented us with many more. Did you know, for example, that studying a second language can boost your brain power? Or that multilingual people are better able to deal with cognitive decline due to ageing than monolinguals are?
These are all excellent reasons to dash to the nearest Berlitz School and start conjugating like mad. But it warms my heart to see that the number one reason on that very lengthy list is enjoyment. People are learning languages to get better jobs, sure, but they’re also doing it for the sheer pleasure of being able to express themselves in another tongue.
Learning the local language, as any expat knows, leads to bigger and better things. It’s a window to understanding a foreign culture, and a gesture of respect when dealing with host country nationals. This, in turn, sets the stage for relationship building, which is arguably the single most important ingredient for feeling settled and well-adjusted in your new country.
If you’re an expat, I urge you to make the effort to speak the language of your host country, even if it’s possible to “get by” in your native tongue. Honestly, the goodwill you’ll generate will come back to you in spades. And maybe someday — perhaps when you’re hanging out in your local library— you’ll be able to return the favour.