On Learning Another Language

I often hear people cite “they speak a different language there” as a reason not to live in a foreign country – or for some, even not to visit. I also know expats whom, after moving to another country, refuse to learn any of the local language. In fact, some are even proud of their refusal to give up English as their sole means of communication. To each his or her own, certainly, but to me this is as hard to understand as why Senator Lindsay Graham thinks he is bragging when he says he has never sent an email.

There are lots of arguments for why it is good for your brain to learn new languages, especially if you are older. Some studies show it may reduce the risk of Alzheimers, but to be honest, those look like pretty preliminary findings. I don’t know if it is helping my brain in any long-term way, but I do know that it has affected the way I think, and the way I feel about myself.  I find communicating in a different tongue to be empowering, in an odd sort of way.

Studies are inconclusive, but it is thought that about 80% of people hear a voice in their heads when reading. Some can hear music as well. Not everyone has these auditory thoughts, and the ones who do not, think the rest of us are crazy. I remember my first wife, when we saw the movie “Amadeus”, remarked that it was interesting that they portrayed Mozart as hearing all of the music in his head when composing. When I told her I heard music, and voices, and that I wasn’t always aware of any conscious control over them (ever get a song stuck in your head that you absolutely hate? What if I say “oh Mickey, you’re so fine”?), she was ready to get the men in white coats to take me away.

But as far as can be told, we don’t think in a language – at least not the same language we speak. Our thoughts are concepts that rapidly evolve, interact, combine, and resolve in a kind of symbolic language. The art of speaking is to take those concepts and attach vocalizations to them that others can then translate into their own symbols. How often have you known something, but been unable to express it in words? Or had a feeling you were unable to describe? Have a sudden burst of understanding? That is the gap that language leaps, between concept and expression.

When you learned to speak English growing up, you learned to map the sounds you were hearing to those inner symbols. Then you learned to make those sounds yourself to make your thoughts and feelings known. You do it so routinely now, you don’t think about it. But you are mapping concepts to sounds. And here’s where is gets interesting, because as Alfred Korzybski famously said. “The map is not the territory”. In other words, no one has direct access to the “territory”, in this case your thoughts. All we have is the map, so the best we can do is be one remove from reality.

Now as an adult, if you go to learn Spanish for example, you’ve got to start all over and make a new map. Instead of linking words directly to concepts, you start out equating Spanish words to English words. It is definitely not easy, but few things that are worthwhile are easy. With the possible exception of a girl I knew in high school (cue the rimshot).

When you begin learning, you first take your concept, express it to yourself in English, then figure out how to say it in Spanish, then say it out loud. Coming the other way, you hear Spanish words, map them over to English words, and then to concepts. Hours of study and lots of memorization is involved. But now, as Dr. Korzybski would point out, your are at two removes from reality. Fluency comes when you eliminate the middle steps. When you can go directly from concept to Spanish, and Spanish to concept.

And this is important. You now have two maps to use. Just like a road map and a topological map taken together can give you a better idea of the territory, the more languages you learn, the closer you can get to a full expression of what’s going on in your noggin’ – or someone else’s.

I first became personally aware of that stage over ten years ago, after spending a week in France. I had three years of French in school, but was still in that translation mode of thought. But after a week of immersion in France, having to listen and speak with an intensity I had never experienced before, something happened in my brain. The first thing I noticed, was I had a dream or two in French. Was it real French or dream French? Not sure, but still interesting. Something was going on up there.

What really brought it to my conscious mind that something was different in my head was an event that happened after the vacation was over. We arrived back in the US late, so we stayed at a hotel near the airport. I was in the morning breakfast buffet line, still a little groggy, no coffee yet, and the guy behind the serving table asked me if I wanted bacon or sausage? I told him “Tous les deux, s’il vous plait“.

I got a blank stare from him, and slowly I realized I had just answered him in French. I did’t think it in French, however. I just knew in that wordless symbolic brain thingie that I wanted both. Without thinking about it, the concept popped out in French instead of English.

My Spanish is awful, but I have reached the point where I’m starting to move into that stage, and it feels weirdly cool. It doesn’t happen often yet, but I sometimes have a phrase pop out without having to run it through the internal translation, or I’ll respond to a Spanish question in the same language automatically. In fact, sometimes I’ll respond to a question asked in English with Spanish.

That’s where it starts to become empowering. It is a very interesting feeling to be able to express those concepts in more than one way. That is what people are doing when they play a musical instrument, or paint, or dance, or write poetry. Learning another language is learning a new mode of expression opens your brain up to new concepts and new ideas, and can literally change the way you think. Hearing a Spanish phrase and understanding without translating also gives you a richer feel for what the speaker is saying, because every language encapsulates concepts in a slightly different way.

I have a long way to go with my Spanish, but it is nice to look back to a few years ago when we first came to Ecuador, and consider the progress. For example, over the last month or so:

  • We’ve rented a car and explored parts of Ecuador with little or no expat presence
  • I’ve arranged for internet access in the unit we rent out. This involved a visit to the office, arranging with an electrician to run cable, reporting readiness with a phone call to the internet provider, and fielding calls from the tech and answering some questions about readiness and our location
  • I stopped by our local phone office to cancel their service to that same apartment, and requested a change in our service
  • I made an appointment over the phone with a vet, and tracked down a place to buy some meds for our dog

It may not sound like much, but two years ago we would have had to hire an interpreter and/or driver to do help us with all of that.

That’s what I mean by empowered. I feel confident to rent a car, and drive around the country. I can jump on a bus to La Libertad and find what I want, or ask for help finding it, and then discuss the purchase and price. It is a powerful way to become integrated with your new home.

Especially because it is not a one way street. When you try to talk with someone who speaks a different language, you are both engaged in communication at a much more involved and intimate level than when you talk in your native tongue. You study each other more closely, looking for cues in body language, facial expressions, and gestures. You concentrate more on what you are trying to say, and you listen more closely to the reply. If you start to talk to someone in a foreign language, no matter how badly you speak it, you can’t help but grow closer to them and their culture. It’s built into the process, and its a beautiful thing.

Communication is the gateway to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of other cultures. I encourage you to help yourself and in some small way, make the world a better place, by studying a new language.


Image logo of “Day of European Languages”