New You: How to Learn a Language
By virtue of reading this, you obviously speak English; a skill that places you with only 20 percent of the world’s population. Even then, however, the majority of that figure comprises people whose first language is not English. In fact, if English is the only language you speak, then, statistically, you’re unable to converse with the majority of the rest of the world.
Sounds limiting in a way, doesn’t it?
Learning a language brings benefits far beyond an ability to effectively communicate with a greater slice of the world, although that is of course a major advantage. As part of our New You series for 2021, we’re exploring ideas, challenges and opportunities that might lead to a whole new perspective - a different way of looking not only at your life, but at yourself. In the words of Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen, “the life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”
If the idea of learning a second language takes you back to torturous high school memories of imitating a parrot on auto-pilot, bear with us. There are so many doors this can open for you, that it’s worth a second wind. So, let’s lift the lid on being bilingual and find out why it could be your ticket to a whole new you. Actually, we want to take it even further and say learning a new language might just create a whole new life.
"Learn a new language and get a new soul."
- Czech Proverb
What are the advantages of learning a second language?
Whether your motivation is personal, cultural, career-driven, financial or philosophical, there are myriad advantages to learning a second language. Let’s look at just a handful.
Boost your confidence
"Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom."
- Roger Bacon
The confidence that comes with learning a new language is priceless. It is such a buzz to be able to read a sign in a foreign language and understand what it means. As your aural skills improve and you begin to understand more people, you will feel as if you’ve unlocked some new world. You were blind, but now you can see. And this is a little naughty of us, but it can be a bit of a thrill to communicate with someone knowing others around you can’t understand a thing. Just beware! Never judge a book by its cover - you could become very unstuck! One of our team members recounts a word-of-warning story:
She was once working at her parent’s business when some customers arrived speaking a foreign language. They conversed between themselves in front of her, assuming she had no idea what they were saying. They made some quite disparaging comments, and she simply let them continue. Then, at the end of the transaction, as they went to leave, she wished them a fabulous day and hoped their attitude might improve. But she did it in their language. Their jaws dropped and they retreated, tail between legs. We’re not saying you should build yourself up by taking others down, but it did give her a buzz and it has gone down in family folklore.
Learning a second language and Alzheimer’s Disease
Previous studies have shown that people who are bilingual exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias later than people who speak just one language – around a four-and-a-half year delay. A study in Italy suggests that this is due to bilingual people having a greater cognitive reserve, meaning that their brains are more resilient to the damage taking place in Alzheimer’s.
Travel the world with a first-row seat
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
- Saint Augustine
Language is a gateway to travel on an entirely new level. It’s an opportunity to really immerse yourself in a country and culture, as opposed to remaining an outside observer. It is without doubt a direct window into new worlds. Not only can you start to make sense of what is happening around you, but you can begin to really understand. It can facilitate a whole new welcoming, with locals appreciating your efforts and reciprocating with warm, generous attitudes. Moreover, you might even find it circumvents a few figurative potholes along the way. Ever had that feeling where you just knew you were being taken advantage of as the obvious outsider, yet you were powerless to do anything about it? That scenario spreads thin the more you understand what’s really happening around you; what’s really being said.
There is a lot to be said for throwing oneself in the deep end and embracing the adventure of travel. With the advent of mobile phones and free movement en masse, you can be forgiven for thinking some of travel has lost its romance and spontaneity. As such, the ideal of arriving somewhere and not understanding a single clue might in fact appeal. Nonetheless, we’re still big believers of getting more from the experience through better understanding. With that in mind, there are 13 countries where fewer than 10 percent of the population speaks English. So depending on what side of the fence you sit, these are either ripe for deep-dive adventure, or ripe for plenty of misunderstanding and missed opportunities. These 13 countries are:
- China (estimates below one percent of the population is able to converse in English)
- The Gambia
In our eyes, that’s a very exotic and enticing list indeed! The idea that making just a small effort to even learn the basics gives exposure to a richer experience in any of these countries, definitely scratches our travel itch!
With understanding comes perspective and empathy
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."
- Nelson Mandela
It takes more than a language to understand one another. We might hear someone speaking and understand everything they communicate, and yet have no concept whatsoever of their perspective. However, it is through exposure to different languages that we can build an appreciation for more perspectives. This in turn can help us become more empathetic to others and the world around us.
Discover a new philosophy
"Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things."
- Flora Lewis
Let’s look at just a small sample of some of the world's languages and what this might say about their people and culture:
Did you know Indonesian has no past or present tense? The Zulu greeting for hello is “we see you”, which links to a belief that our eyes connect with those of our ancestors. Aboriginal Australians, so indelibly linked to their environment, have no word for left or right. Instead they refer to north, east, south or west. So, you might literally be asked to pass the plate sitting at the west end of the table. In Chinese, we see the fundamental importance of family reflected in particular idioms. Traditionally, the Chinese family unit incorporated many living under the one roof, not just parents and children (as is common in the West). The character for ‘nation’ is literally ‘children of the nation’. For ‘state’, it’s literally ‘family of the state’. In many languages there is a formal and casual way to say ‘you’, and never the twain shall meet. If, for example, you were to interview in French and use ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’, we’d hazard a guess that you wouldn’t get the job. In English, we often ask how someone is, and can be caught off guard when they literally begin to answer the question with anything other than, “well thanks. How are you?”.
See how this is all starting to make us look at the world through fresh eyes?
Tap into a new persona
"Change your language and you change your thoughts."
- Karl Albrecht
We don’t have data to support this, it’s just based on our own experiences. However, do you know someone who speaks more than one language? If so, have you seen them interact and communicate in each of those languages? Have you noticed they change depending on the language they’re speaking? Not only do their facial muscles move differently as they are forced to create different sounds, noises and intonations, but they adopt physical traits typical of the place in which they learnt that language. Even their voice can sound different depending on the language they speak. These changes vary from subtle to flagrant, and seem to tap into another being altogether. And that’s just what’s happening on a superficial level! What about within? When we speak a different language, we’re wiring our brains in a new way. We’re seeing how things are constructed differently, where priorities are weighted elsewhere. It might be changing how we act and look, but it’s also changing how we think. A veritable, literal New You, one could argue!
Being bilingual increases your employment opportunities, and earning capacity
"One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way."
- Frank Smith
Even without the data it makes sense, doesn’t it? In a world where gaining a competitive edge is becoming increasingly paramount (supply outweighs demand), anything that can put us head and shoulders above our competition is a bonus. Starting salaries for students graduating with ability in one or more modern foreign languages are at least 20% higher than for students who speak English only. As careers advance, that competitive edge continues to creep ahead. Indeed, bilingual employees can earn between 5% and 20% more money per hour than those who speak only one language.
Improve your written and oral skills in English
"He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
That is not a typo. Learning another language can help you master your own native tongue. Grammar classes in English-speaking schools are becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Ask the closest person next to you to explain the subjunctive form, or to give you an example of the past conditional tense. Don’t be surprised if you hear crickets chirping. They know the answers, they just don’t know that they know. Learning a second language forces you to revisit the fundamentals. In better understanding tenses, structure and conjugations, we develop a greater awareness of our mother tongue.
Become a more aware media consumer
"A different language is a different vision of life."
- Federico Fellini
2020 will be remembered for several reasons, one of them a growing trend to scrutinise the ownership of world media and the messages a few choose to convey to the masses. Understanding a second language gives you an opportunity to absorb and consider niche media in other countries around the world.
Is it too late to start to learn a new language?
It is NEVER too late to do anything in life that brings you joy, interest or stimulation! Take, for example, the grandfather of one of our very own Edible Health team members. After contracting Parkinson’s Disease in his late 40s, he was no longer able to work. This was an enormous blow to his quality of life and his self-worth. What did he do? It was the 1980s, and he purchased some tape cassettes and books and began to teach himself not just one new language, but two. He spent a portion of every single day listening over and over to these cassettes, regularly advancing his skills and ability. He even began teaching his pet budgie, Luigi, how to chirp a few words in German and Italian. He never set a foot outside his homeland, but languages became a lifeline for his mental health. If a grandpa with failing health and his budgie can do it, so can you!
How do you learn a new language?
Learning a language is accessible and largely affordable in the West thanks to the proliferation of online tutors, mobile phone apps and informal face-to-face social groups bringing together native and learner speakers (take Meet-up, for example). Before you decide how to learn, it’s best to understand the type of learning that suits you.
- Are you an efficient and comfortable learner working remotely, or do you prefer face-to-face?
- Do you feed off group interaction, or are you better in private tutoring?
- Are you more comfortable learning a foreign language that is taught in your mother tongue, or do you like the idea of being thrown in the deep end and being taught in classes that effectively ban English?
- Do you like to refer to a lot of written, supportive material, or do you learn through the ear?
- Can you afford to take off to another country and learn on the ground?
These are all good questions to ask yourself before you get underway.
Advice for learning a new language
- Don’t set the bar too high and beat yourself up if you’re not on target. Nothing will turn you off faster
- Don’t be scared to make mistakes or sound ridiculous. Fortune favours the brave, so just leap in and embrace it. Besides, some hilariously funny moments can arise when you’re learning a language and willing to have a laugh at yourself
- Try to set aside time daily to revise what you’ve learnt, as opposed to continually just learning whatever is next
- Vocabulary is key. Even if you can’t construct sentences straight away, simply knowing what words mean is going to help you make leaps and bounds (and flex your mental muscle as you try to decipher the meaning of a sentence with just a few words up your memory sleeve)
- Create your own dictionary. Get one of those pocket-sized alphabetised notebooks. With every new word write the English and alternative equivalent. If the new word starts with a different letter, be sure to enter it twice. Example - ‘door’ in French is ‘porte’. So, write that down on the D page as well as the P page, and use a different colour for each language. We recommend the old-fashioned approach of writing down as this can help with memory recall
- Make friends with post-it notes. Start putting notes on all the objects you learn, using the foreign noun (and, importantly, omitting the English)
We really hope this might ignite a bilingual bug in you. What’s the worst that can happen? Give it a go, and let us know how you get on. We would be delighted to hear from you - especially if you contact us in a foreign language…!
The information we have provided herewith, and all linked materials are not intended nor should they be construed as medical advice. Please refer to our Terms and Conditions and consult your General Practitioner for advice specific for you.