This is Your Brain on Language
Learning a language as a child is a very organic process for many of us, particularly because our brains are perfectly attuned to picking up what everyone is saying around us.
Depending on where you grew up, you may have had the opportunity to learn more than one language during this formative period; whether you lived in an area that speaks more than one language, grew up in a household with multi-lingual parents, or attended schools that focused on teaching multiple languages, you may have had more than one ‘mother’ tongue.
But if you didn’t have the chance to learn more than one language in your youth, there’s no reason you shouldn’t start now. In fact, learning new languages — be it second, third, fourth or twentieth — as an adult has many benefits, including:
- Improving your focus & attention span
- Increasing your ability to multi-task
- Enhancing your ability to learn other things more easily
- Increasing confidence in communicating with others
- Expanding your perspective of the world
Need more of a case to pick up a new language? In addition to curating some excellent resources on the benefits of learning new languages, we asked two of our language teachers to share more about their experiences.
His native language is Somali, but he also speaks French, English and Arabic. Learning these languages wasn’t really a decision for Ali: Djibouti’s history and the multicultural environment in which he was raised gave Ali the opportunity to learn these languages as part of his every day life.
“With each language comes a culture, a way of life, a way of thinking, and that changes your way of seeing the world and interacting with other people,” Ali notes. “You learn that everything is Relative, and you become more tolerant and compassionate with people from different cultures. You understand better where and why there is a culture clash between civilizations.”
While Ali doesn’t currently have children, he intends to expose them to multiple languages when he does. It’s particularly important to him that they understand that they belong to a multicultural, complex world. “They need to part of it as actors and not spectators,” he says. Ali believes that learning multiple languages will prepare his children to be less fearful, be more prepared to face challenges, and devise solutions that are fair and just.
That kind of perspective is what inspired Ali to teach languages to others — to build bridges, and decrease cultural misunderstandings. One tool that is particularly helpful is humor, as it helps his students see different cultures in a new light.
Here are a few of Ali’s favorite words and phrases in the different languages that he speaks:
- Nabad iyo aano: “Peace and milk. It‘s a different way to say Bye but with more meaning (stay in peace and prosperity).”
- Bon, bein, bof: “Interjections to use when undecided, not really impressed. I like the way it sounds.”
- No way: “You can use for pretty much for anything: starting or finishing a conversation, disagreeing, surprise … “
- In shaa Allah: “If Allah agrees. It humbles your expectations.”
Originally from Peru, Teresa’s first language was Spanish, but she also speaks English fluently, and knows some German, French and Sanskrit.
She began learning multiple languages as a child, when her mother enrolled her in a French preschool. “I started learning Cantonese at 5 years old. But I didn’t really learn any Chinese, the ‘teaching methodology’ at the school wasn’t very educational,” she says. “No one really learned it but it was fun, we even prayed in Chinese. I started learning English at around 6 years old.”
While her parents were initially responsible for exposing her to multiple languages at a young age, Teresa took the reigns in elementary school. “I took my English learning ‘in my own hands’ and taught myself a lot of what I know now,” she says. “My parents and I loved The Beatles and we enjoyed singing along. Then, I learned about John Lennon’s solo albums and was hooked on the lyrics. I memorized them first, and later on I found out what they meant. It was almost the same that happens when we learn our first language, through lullabies.”
Teresa considers languages to be her friends — albeit imaginary — because of all the time that she spent figuring out songs and singing along. It also enriched her relationship with her parents. “[My mom] is a theater person and some of the plays were in English so we had fun with language and sayings,” she remembers. “My dad also liked songs in English, so I guess language helped me connect even more with my parents, share common interests. I also loved Mark Twain and was able to read him in English as a teenager.”
She began traveling with her family at a very young age, which helped to expand her ability to communicate with others who speak a different language. “My first trip was at 4 and we went to Amsterdam. After that, we never stopped traveling,” she recalls. “So, I think almost half of my interactions with people in my life have been in a second language. I can say languages allowed me since an early age to connect with people from other countries, other realities, and also allowed me to share what I had.
“My mom remembered an incident in Germany. I was four and she took me to a park and in a second or two I was playing with all the little girls … and we were ‘speaking’ in our own language.”
In terms of the benefits she’s experienced as a result of learning multiple languages, Teresa thinks it has helped her adapt more quickly to different cultures, and to feel more comfortable in new surroundings. “It makes you feel more independent and self-assured,” she notes. “Also, it is great for connecting with others and creating meaningful connections.”
In her experience, taking a language class is about more than just learning how to communicate differently. “It’s also an excuse to socialize, and socializing usually makes us happier,” she smiles. “Have you seen the movie Italian for Beginners?”
She also believes that knowing how to speak multiple languages is a great addition to any resume; our work is getting even more and more globalized, and it can help you land your dream job.
It’s one thing to learn languages, but what inspired Teresa to teach others? “I think there are two words in Sanskrit that can best answer this question: Dharma and karma,” she laughs. “In the sense that teaching became my path at a very young age. I started teaching (informally) when I was 12 years old to a friend who wanted to learn English and didn’t have the means to afford it. Later on, a school principal, who was also my friend, invited me to teach English in her school. Since then I haven’t stopped. In a way I didn’t decide it, it happened naturally.”
Here are a few of Teresa’s favorite words and phrases in the different languages she speaks:
- Gorgeous: “I love the sound and when I first learned the word I thought it meant chubby because it sounds like gordo in Spanish.”
- Whatever: “It is just perfect and I don’t think we have just one word in Spanish that encompasses the meaning of whatever. I specially love it when life gets challenging.”
- Tant pis: “This means never mind. It is one of the first words I learned in French and my dad still jokes about it with me. I think what we liked the most was the sound of it.”
- Est tut mir leid: “It is very handy. It means I am sorry.”
- Adho mukha svanasana: “Really, all the yoga words!!! But this is one of my favorite poses, down dog. It doesn’t mean that literally, but this is how it is being used in yoga.”
- Saudade: “Even though I don’t speak it, I love this word, which is a concept to say you are missing someone or something, but it means so much more. It is nostalgia, longing.”
Lost in Translation
Here are a few fun words from other languages that don’t have a direct English counterpart:
- Kummerspeck (German)
- Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
- Gigil (Filipino)
- The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.
- Lagom (Swedish)
- Maybe Goldilocks was Swedish? This slippery little word is hard to define, but means something like, “Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right.”
- Luftmensch (Yiddish)
- There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense.