If you asked me what I thought about learning a foreign language before my college career began, I would have replied with some sort of galling speech about the tiresome workload, impossibilities of truly picking up an accent and my general distaste for Spanish (which I had been “learning” since first grade). Now, after four semesters of French, I am almost embarrassed to think about how I had continuously rejected foreign language from my life.
I don’t really know how or why this shift occurred. Did I begin situating myself in a more globally-sensitive existence? Or, more simply, did I start having better instructors? I couldn’t tell you. Regardless, I am now of the impression that learning a new language is one of the most rewarding and beautiful activities humans can participate in.
Thinking about the concept of language, whether in its written or spoken form, is one of those thoughts that makes your brain hurt. How do the three lines that come together to create the capital letter “A” evoke that one specific sound in my head or allow me to constrict my throat just enough to produce the noise that represents that symbol? I have no clue. Maybe I should take a course in linguistics. Nevertheless, this mind bending, yet enthralling, thought embodies the fact that each language harnessed this trifecta of visualizing, understanding and reproducing in its own specific way. The process in which they did so is linked back to so many different factors, from history and geography to biology and art. Learning languages, or more pointedly, exposing oneself to the differences between languages, can begin to open up the mind to a new way of processing the world around you.
Here’s an example. When looking at French, or any of the romance languages, you can see that there is much more importance placed on the subjunctive mood as a differentiated form of expression compared to the indicative mood. There are so many rules, exceptions and stipulations to this emotionally driven, dual-subject mode of speaking that never come to my mind when using it in English.This is mostly due to the fact that English does not draw a distinction between most verbs in the subjunctive and indicative mood, while romance languages conjugate them in distinctive forms.
Although there is overlap, the ways in which the subjunctive is used becomes different in English and French because of grammar — which, as I so eloquently described above, is the final product of that brain-hurting phenomenon of how languages came to be. So, does this mean that an English speaker has more room to stipulate, desire and suppose than a French speaker does due to a lack of grammatical constraints? I don’t necessarily know the answer to this question, but thinking about the way that language both allows for and inhibits certain ways of thinking and expression is mind-boggling.
Another distinction that comes to mind is the phrase te quiero in Spanish. Not quite “I like you” but also not as strong of a statement as “I love you,” there is no equivalent to this saying in English. Similarly, in Brazilian Portuguese, one has the feeling of saudade when they wish to see a friend, family member or significant other. Brazilians won’t say that they are missing someone, but that they have saudade. When translated into English, this single word embodies emotions ranging from a deep longing for someone you love to a profound state of nostalgia.
Although I wish I could have grown up bilingual, there are so many benefits to initially learning a language through a grammatical lens. It sheds light on the way your native language shapes the way you look at the world, and prompts you to think about why these differences exist — which almost always leads to acquiring fruitful knowledge about a group’s culture or history.
In my lifetime, I hope to learn more than just French. I can’t even begin to think about what picking up Japanese or Arabic from square-one would be like, but I do know that it would continue to break down the barriers that come from a unilingual lifestyle.