Have you ever wished you could be someone other than your own old self? Had a more charming voice, a bit less boring face, a more daring personality… if only for one moment? Have you ever wished you could see the world around you, people, birds and garbage from a different perspective? Through someone else’s eyes, with concepts entirely different to the ones embedded in your mind?
You can do just that when you speak another language. And this is one of the greatest appeals of this adventurous process, the bewitching power that makes it addictive. But how does it work?
When you learn another language, it is invariably a foreign one. And foreign means strange. The other. The one that is not you. A foreign language carries with it the values and notions, the structures and categories, the habits and heritage of the people that speaks it. A people you have not grown up around, with whom you frequently have little in common. Thus, when you can speak such a foreign language, you make it – and all of its culture – part of you. You expand yourself, discover feelings and ways to describe situations or persons, that you didn’t even know existed.
A concrete example are the words to which you do not easily find a satisfactory equivalent in other languages. How to translate in one precise word “endearing”, from English, or “plaisanter”, from French, or “Wanderlust”, from German to your language? The vocabulary of mine, Portuguese, does not offer an ideal equivalent. At least I haven’t found it yet. And what to say of the whole host of words in some languages for types of rain or snow, or the ways to address people according to levels of formality? The Japanese have a quantity of the latter that I find astonishing, as a Brazilian, simply because this way of interacting in fixed roles that imply complex respect and distance gradations is unknown to me and, on the other hand, woven into the reality of being Japanese.
That all means, to put it shortly and poetically, that the menu of different ways available to you of tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling – feeling – living, is more varied when you learn other languages.
Also, not only do you expand your experience because you welcome those of others into you, but you also explore new versions of yourself. Speaking another language, you use different muscles of your speaking apparatus, or you use the old ones in a new manner. The mechanics of the pronunciation is different, the rhythm and melody is particular, sometimes your tone and pitch of voice changes too along with the sounds and music of the language. And due to the fact that the human organism is, well, an organism, a unity, intrinsically interconnected, you can soon find yourself with facial expressions or gestures that were not typically yours before. You can feel suddenly more polite and subtle, or more blunt and direct, in how you express yourself. Your body is stimulated not to fall into its routinely known, repeated movements. You soon realize that you have in yourself several versions of you that are there, just waiting to be exercised. You are multiple.
Not to mention the fact that usually the process of learning involves meeting new people – in conversation class or in the endless platforms of online language exchange. And when you meet someone new, you have the opportunity to be another you. This person, who is not acquainted with the way you lick the lid of the yogurt when you open it, your preference to Celtic music over country, your terror of conversations about sports, the regrets you carry and how shy and silent you normally are. For them, you are a blank page. Therefore, he or she can free you from your routine and help you to be a stranger in your own territory. Allowing you to explore the numerous and fascinating aspects of your own being, many of which you normally don’t see anymore, blinded by habit and routine.
Meeting new people is also about meeting new sides and possibilities of you. Your own old self.
Finally, language learning is about loving. When love happens, learning is actually effective. It becomes as soothing and exciting, and as natural, as love. Why? Because when you truly learn a language, and are fully and thoroughly competent it it, you make it your own. It belongs to you. You find, within this foreign territory, your home. A place that is only yours, and will not work for any other inhabitant – or learner. Be it through any aspect of the language’s universe – literature, society, mentality – or of your multiple self universes that your fall in love with. When you allow yourself to be fascinated, to be enchanted, to connect with and lose yourself in any manifestation of a culture – or the whole of it -, it becomes a love affair, and your learning of its main code of communication, a success.
To sum up, please do yourself a favor, and learn a new language. Reduce the otherness of the others to you, and explore the other yous that you know not, or do not allow to flourish. Let life be more interesting and live the myriad of possibilities of it to the very fullest. I swear, it is a world of fun.
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