Everyone who has ever seriously tried to learn a new language knows that it is hard work. Perhaps the best proof for this simple fact is the onslaught of shady offers with promises like: “The Secret Method Nobody Wants You To Know! Learn German in 10 Days!” – “Master Japanese in Your Sleep!” – “With Patented Snake Oil 3000™”
Let’s be honest for a second, okay? There are no silver bullets, no well-kept secrets or shortcuts to learning a language. It takes some serious time and effort. You can literally invest yourself infinitely in any given language. But here’s the thing. The payoffs are equally limitless!
Reclaim Your Childlike Wonder & Curiosity
Have you ever observed a child making its first steps on the beach, gazing at the sun, marveling at the beauty and indescribable wonder of it all? We all used to be like that once. But then we learned the names for things, labeled sun, moon and stars, and put everything into neatly categorized boxes.
By learning a language we can tap into that same sense of wonder and curiosity again. Especially when we find ourselves in a foreign country, whether for just a few weeks or months.
For example, I still remember when I first started to learn how to read as a child. Riding on a tram through the city, I couldn’t take my eyes off all the shop-signs, pestering my grandmother with a stream of never-ending questions like: “What does it say here?” – “Pets-hop?”- “What is a Far-macee?” – “Why do you spell Candy with C and not with K?”
Now, many decades later I find myself in the exact same spot, walking through streets in Israel, each street-sign and shop window full of strange letters and words, vowel-less riddles just waiting to be cracked. And when a jumble of letters suddenly resolves to a word (from right to left, mind you), understanding comes like lightning and the connections flare up in a happy moment of: “Oh! So that’s what that means!”
That Sweet Sense of Achievement
We don’t usually appreciate all the many little things we do in the course of a single day. We make phone calls, write emails, fill out forms and brush off salesmen at our door. It’s all part of the hum-drum of day-to-day reality. It’s certainly no cause for excitement or happiness! We just … get it done.
But when you’re a foreigner in a foreign land, each one of these little things can quickly become a hurdle, especially when you don’t switch to a bridging-tongue like English to escape the sense of discomfort:
Somebody calls you on the phone and you just asked them three times to repeat what they have said. Have you won in the lottery or is somebody trying to sue you? Should you ask again just to be sure? How do you write a quick business email confirming an agreement or meeting? Is that really the right closing? Should you google it again just to be on the safe side? What does this field say in this form? The dictionary doesn’t seem to make any sense. And just how do you tell the salesman that you aren’t interested without sounding too rude or even accidentally egging him on?
As discomforting as these experiences may be, when you manage to make yourself understood, each minute exchange like that can bring a great sense of achievement. You navigated through the maze of a foreign-language automated phone system? You are a genius! You filled out a simple online form to to change your mobile plan? Wow! It worked! Told a sales rep that you aren’t interested in an upgrade? You’re on top of the world!
Whereas a native will just breeze through all of this, a language learner can get stuck everywhere or turn each moment into an opportunity for growth and happiness!
Learning As A Lifestyle, Not A Means to an End
Learning a new language puts a person into a humble place. You can’t talk and act as fast as people around you. You often feel stupid and inadequate. Superficially speaking, your (often futile) attempts to come to grips with it all may be seen as a handicap. But these moments can teach us to look at life in a different way. We may even develop empathy for others who — for whatever reason — are struggling with the most simple tasks from day to day.
Ultimately, experiencing these moments of discomfort and achievement may lead to the sense that life is not just about functioning well and getting things done, but about constantly growing, learning, keeping open to new experiences and never giving up.