The Real Reasons To Learn A Language

There are many terrible, terrible things one can be told in life. For instance, “I never want to see you again”, uttered by the person you love is an ordeal I hope you shall never experience.

Being told that the gym is closed for annual maintenance, or that the corner store has ran out of hallumi cheese are equally heart-wrenching things to hear.

However, that which takes the cake – a phrase which here means “is so utterly dreadful that it makes me want to dig a hole and die in it by the mere act of typing it out” – is,

“It looks good on your CV.”

What makes this phrase so utterly dreadful is that it often rears its despicable head early in life, when one is particularly susceptible to its influence.

I myself, have been told “It looks good on your CV” on many occasions. And had I not stumbled across the likes of Elliott Hulse, I too may succumbed to its dastardly biddings.

One such occasion was when I considered taking a language class. In a presentation about the benefits of learning a language, “It looks good on your CV” took pride of place, followed by its cronies “it makes you more employable,”, and “earn on average 20% more.”

Thankfully, the talk was banal – a word which hear means “so boring that I couldn’t possibly take in anything being said, including “It looks good on your CV” – so I signed up for Spanish class for reasons so irresponsible that they would make a career advisor cry. (What I find most ironic is that my mum worked as a careers advisor. Sorry mum.)

Since then, my prospects have went from bad to worse according to society-at-large. My irresponsible decisions have been irresponsible as ever, which is why I found myself living in Madrid, and now Mexico.

As I hone my linguistical skills on this completely unintended Spanish quest, I’ve discovered entirely different reasons why you should learn a language, instead of “It looks good on your CV.”

(I’m relieved to tell you that that was the last time I shall have to use that abominable phrase.)

Below, you will find said reasons. And like almost everything on this blog, they can be summarised by the following,

“You don’t do it for what you’re going to get but for who you will become.”

¿Listo? Vamos.

1. You Have to Become More Sociable

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

And like slavery-ridden nations, so it is with introverted students trying to learn a language. Either they will cease to be an introvert, or become more sociable in learning the language.

You cannot remain a shy, timid person whilst learning a language. It’s impossible. Because no matter how much you study in your room, no matter how much theory you learn, no matter how many foreign films you digest (figuratively, I hope), language is about two-way communication. The whole point of language is communication.

If you want to get better at speaking, you have to speak. If you want to speak, you have to find someone to speak to. And everytime you start a conversation, you become more sociable.

It’s the same with listening. It’s all very well listening to perfect audio, or even garbled radio, but that’s not communication. It’s one-way. To get better at listening and responding, you have to have conversations.

Theory just won’t do it alone.. After studying Spanish for a year at school, I thought I knew it all. It wasn’t until the time came to speak Spanish when I realised that all the theory in the world means diddly-squat in the linguistical game. Sure, you need to study theory to improve, but only when paired with application. And conversation is the only way of application. Theory, then, is only helpful if you’re engaging in coversations and becoming more sociable.

It’s like learning guitar. You can’t do it by reading books or listening to music. You need to apply.

Now, you might be thinking, “Ok, I follow your logic – that I’d need to speak to people ‘n all – but I don’t see how that would make me more sociable.”

Let me show you by way of an example.

The Quintessential Beginner’s Experience

You’ve studied a bit of the language. You’ve read a few textbooks. You’ve downloaded those bastions of knowledge that are apps onto your phone. You’ve nailed a few phrases. And you’re feeling confident.

You go to the target country.

An opportunity to speak with a local presents itself. A taxi-driver, a bartender, a receptionist, a lifeguard, the King of Salem, a thief, a wine merchant… And you know that this is what it all comes down to. Putting theory into practice.

And in this moment, you recieve a humbling from the linguistical deities above. You’re thinking about how the conversation will pan out, and you realise you know nothing apart from “Hola” or “Bonjour”. You realise that you’re in no way prepared to ask this person about bizarre tomato festivals, or ancient cities, or the best way to cook a tortilla.

So I say hello. What then? What if the guy says something I can’t understand? What if he has an accent? What if she talks too fast? What if this is a complete and utter disaster?”

You know what, let’s study some more, then I’ll speak to people tomorrow.”

But deep down, you know the only way to improve is to speak. You’re now torn between listening to the voices of dissent, or following the lone voice that says, “Screw it. You may be a noob, but you’ll be a courageous noob this day.”

If you postpone action, it only gets worse. If you jump into it, you’ll learn that making mistakes is actually hilarious, you’ll earn the respect of the locals for trying, and a hefty dose of self-respect too. Plus, you get a little rush from speaking to people, which makes you want to do it again, and again, and again. You might cock up, you might look like a right tit, but the feeling of being in The Arena is like no other.

That’s how you become more sociable. And the more sociable you become, the more you improve, which means you have more speaking ingredients to work with,  which encourages even more socialisation.

It’s a runaway reaction to a socially cavalier, linguistical-beast version of you.

Win win.

 

2. Develop Thicker Skin.

Seeing the lightest and gayest purple was then most in fashion, he would always wear that which was the nearest black; and he would often go out of doors, after his morning meal, without either shoes or tunic; not that he sought vain-glory from such novelties, but he would accustom himself to be ashamed only of what deserves shame, and to despise all other sorts of disgrace.” – On Cato, a Roman politician and Stoic.

When you’re white in a white world, you try to be like everyone else. But when you’re different by default – a phrase which here means “people label you a Gringo” it changes things.

When you’re different by default – by the way you look, the colour of your skin, you have to accept it eventually. After all, you can’t change it. Sure, I can dress, act, talk, eat, sleep and drink like everyone else, but at the end of the day, I’m a white guy in Mexico. My hair isn’t black, my eyes aren’t brown. I’m different. I accept that fact.

At the start, I was a little self-conscious with all the stares. The glances on the bus. The looks on the street. But now, I’m like, “So what?! I’m different. Who gives a damn?” Being racially different not only has made me content with being different, but it’s given me a license to act differently too.

Wearing odd socks to football. Dancing in the gym. Doing walking lunges in the street. Bringing brushes to clean up the community basketball court. Speaking to strangers. Asking unorthodox questions.

Granted, these are small potatoes. But the mindset shift is huge. When you’re different by default, the inner resitance to being different crumbles, allowing you to be and do what you want.

3. It Makes Failure a Friend

Aristotle said, “No virtue is developed in a vacuum.”

Learning a language is the same. It can’t be done in a safe, comfy environment like a classroom, but only in The Arena, where your only guarantee is blood, sweat and dust.

People want perfection. People don’t want to make mistakes. But to truly learn a language, you have to leave these at the wayside. You have to embrace the fact that you’re not perfect, ad that you’re gonna make a ton of mistakes. It’s ironic. It’s not until you accept these things – that you acknowledge that you suck and that you’re ok with failing – that you can start to improve.

Really, learning languages is all about feedback loops. You learn the theory, you put it into practice, you review, then repeat. You learn a new tense, try it out, realise you suck at it, start using a flashcard app (theory), do more practice, then get better and better. In conversations, if you’re not sure of something, you can ask if you make sense or if X is the right word. The way to nail a language is to make your feedback loops shorter. Cut the time between theory and practice. The more you converse, and the more you fail to expose your weaknesses, the quicker you improve.

And the more you learn, the more you realise how stupid it is to hide from failure. You realise how failure is actually your friend.

 

Once you know enough to get by, it’s easy to kid yourself that you know the language. Indeed, it only takes about a 1000 words to have fluency. That said, as soon as a conversation veers off into something more unusual, say philosophy, politics, science, photography, or how to make the perfect creme bruleé, you’re screwed. You can either run away from these weaknesses, and kid yourself that you can speak it, or embrace failure and seek out conversations that will test your weaknesses.

 

4. Associate effort with reward.

What I found pretty frustrating about studying physics is that I couldn’t associate effort with real-life reward, other than an academic ‘atta boy.

This is perhaps why I love weightlifting and learning languages. It’s immediately obvious that you get out what you put in, plus, the benefits improve every area of your life. For instance, the more you lift and the healthier you eat, the better you feel about yourself and the better you look, giving off an air of confidence and happiness to those around you. Life is just far, far superior being in-shape.

The exact same is for languages. Life is just better when you can speak more of a country’s language. If you learn a new tense, a new verb conjugation or a new set of words, it opens up new conversational universes. Two words that I always got confused in spanish were ya (already, by now) and todavía (yet, still). Because I couldn’t remember which was which, I didn’t use them in conversation. Then, one day, I studied them, and now, Boom! – untapped avenues of conversational riches opened up.

The more you know, the more you can appreciate its people, its culture, its food, its traditions…. You can go deeper with every conversation and you can talk about a greater variety of subjects, which makes you want to practice even more. It’s an amazing positive feedback loop. The more you practice, the more you want to speak, which makes you practice more and further immerse yourself in the culture.

Plus, few things in life are more rewarding than communicating in another language. There’ll be times when you can’t stop smiling to yourself mid-conversation because it’s dawned on you that you’re actually speaking another language.

 

5. Leaping Into the Unknown Develops REAL confidence.

“Let’s help people raise their self-esteem.” – some politician, probably.

People talk about self-esteem as if it’s something you can sprinkle on top of a salad. Yet true confidence isn’t developed in a vacuum. It’s achieved by putting yourself through trials and tribulations, and coming out the other side. By getting cuts and bruises in the Arena.

If you launch yourself into another culture, and put yourself in a situation where you have to learn the language, and come out the other side, you’re gonna have pretty high “self-esteem”. It makes you feel bad-ass knowing you can do stuff like that.

And this isn’t talking about learning a language. It’s about throwing yourself into unknown situations (which you almost always have to do to learn a language).

For example, I arrived for my study abroad year in Canada with nowhere to live. The place I’d been banking on turned out to be a hole, so I was in a hotel the week before classes were going to start. Really, it was no big deal, although it seemed like a disaster at the time. But this experience gave me the confidence to go to other cities with nowhere to live.

Plus, when you’ve got nothing, you find yourself in crazy situations where you think to yourself, “How the hell did I end up here?” Going through those are what gives confidence.

6. Makes You Humble.

This might seem contradictory to “Gives You More Confidence”, but it’s not.

In Stephen Pressfield’s account of the epic battle of Thermoplyae between 300 Spartans and 1 million Persions, Dieneles, an older warror, addresses a younger warrior,

“My wish for you, Kalistos, is that you survive as many battles in the flesh as you have already fought in yuor imagination.Perhaps then you will acquire the humility of a man and bear yourself no longer as the demi-god you presume yourself to be.”

When you a) associate effort with reward, and b) know you have to fail to succeed, you very quickly become acquainted with your own weaknesses. When you’re learning a language, you can’t bullshit yourself – you can communicate, or you can’t.  Thus you have the confidence that you can get through anything, IF you put in the effort. That is the beautiful co-existence of humility and confidence.

Plus, it’s hard to have swagger when 99.99999999999999999% of the local population speak more fluently than you do.

7. True Knowledge of Other Cultures

If I didn’t live in Mexico and watched the news, I’d think it was a country where everyone and their mums was in a drug cartel. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The country is magical – its people, its culture, its landscapes, its food…

Granted, it would be ridiculous to say that Mexico doesn’t have problems. It does. I’m fortunate to live in a safe area of the country. In border states like Sinaloa, I’ve been told it’s very different.

But the fact of the matter is that the people of Mexico are just as magical as people in Scotland. Sure, there are some bad guys. But that’s a small minority of Mexico’s 200 million inhabitants.

In this day and age with the proliferation of mass media, social networks and politicians who shall not be named – cough – Trump – cough – it’s more important than ever to bypass the fear-mongering media (fear does sell) and form your own opinion.

8. Makes You Appreciate Your Own Country

This is really weird. Because it’s not that Scotland is any better than Mexico, or Canada, or Spain. Indeed, these countries beat Scotland hands-down in many areas.

But nonetheless, every day I spend away from Scotland makes me appreciate my homeland even more. Its beaches, its mountains, its food, its culture, its people, its politics…

Don’t ask me why. It’s not that Scotland is any better, or that Mexico, Canada, or Spain are awful countries. These are truly magical corners of the world. Yet, for some strange reason, they make me love Scotland all the more.

 

What I didn’t mention.

Of course, you meet amazing people, you see stunning landscapes, and taste delicious foods. But for me, learning a language is much more about the internal journey than the external. After all, there are amazing people, stunning landscapes and delicious foods everywhere.

*Raises glass*

To your own linguistical odyssey.

As Always,

DreamBigStartSmall!

Mucho amor,

Iain

 

 

 


photo credit: ghatore <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/133065128@N06/33586719041″>Thar Desert</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>