Why do you learn languages?
Why do you learn languages?Take your time and answer that question with your heart.
You would probably agree that a language is more than just vocab and grammar structures.
It’s the way the language connects and separates, with its rhythms, its specific rising and falling tones, that create its melodies. It’s in the movements of the hands, in the facial expressions and in the idiomatic phrases that we can perceive how interconnected a language is with its history and culture.
As a consequence, when you dive into the acquisition of a specific language, you get to discover and understand the culture of the people who speak it. This is probably why when I asked you “Why do you learn languages?”, you likely answered something along the lines of “I learn languages in order to connect with and understand other cultures.”
This makes language learning a truly beautiful endeavor. It allows us to create bridges across nations and ethnicities in a world where the differences tend to be underlined more than the similitudes.
It allows us to feel united.
Feeling different in different languages?
Let’s go one step further.
Have you noticed how different you sometimes feel depending on the language you speak?
It might be the sound of your voice, the words or structures you choose, the way your body moves when you talk, or even the way you think.
Sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, these changes can be surprising to the people who only know you in one language and can leave them thinking you are a different person in the different languages you speak.
You might yourself be comfortable with these dissimilarities, or, on the contrary, you may feel frustrated or afraid of not being able to express your “true” self in your second (or third, or fourth) language.
Instead of seeing this well-known phenomenon as us shifting into someone else, I invite you to consider this:
Beyond its culture and history, every language carries with it a unique perception of the world. Learning this language is, in fact, a call for an adventure. it’s an opportunity to not only open our minds but to create a wider space within ourselves for us to expand our souls. When you learn another language, you are learning a new way of looking at the same world.
Do the languages we speak shape the way we think?
If you have ever wondered whether the languages we speak shape the way we think or vice versa, you might be interested to know that the question isn’t new at all.
In fact, it’s been discussed for centuries amongst philosophers, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists. More recently, In the field of cognitive science, several studies have shed light on this phenomenon. What we are learning is that people who speak different languages do perceive the world differently. As researcher Lera Boroditsky puts it, “language profoundly influences the way we see the world.”
Different cultural groups see the world in very distinct ways
The way Belgian people, Canadian people, Italian people, Vietnamese people, etc. see and describe the world is very distinct. It influences the way they think, the way they behave, the way they make decisions about their lives, how resilient, optimistic or cynical they can be.
This is natural as languages are the result of tribes and nations thinking and seeing the world in their own ways, and trying to convey that vision through words and sounds. You don’t need to dig too deep for this to show. Look at the way Vietnamese and Chinese grammar don’t have tenses, but how Spanish uses 9. Notice how the English prefer a passive voice in “my car was stolen,” where the French would use an active form “on m’a volé ma voiture” instead of “ma voiture a été volée.”
My favorite thing to do is to look at idiomatic phrases. You can sometimes find similar expressions in similar cultures, but more often than not, they can’t be translated or it wouldn’t make sense. Sometimes, the same meaning is conveyed with different images, which are a real insight into how people think. For example, in French we say “Il pleut des cordes” (it’s raining ropes) where the British talk about cats and dogs. While they have “other fish to fry,” the French have other cats to whip (“J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter”). Similarly, humor is very different across the globe and something hilarious in Belgium can be downright offensive in the US.
Don’t be afraid to lose yourself
When you learn a language, you adopt it, and with it, you take on its mindset too. Sometimes, you might be curious about discovering another aspect of yourself through a new lens. Sometimes, you may feel resistant, perhaps afraid of losing yourself in the culture of another. Sometimes you will feel foreign in the languages you speak.
If that is your case, I want to tell you: don’t be afraid to surrender because you cannot lose yourself. You are already whole. If you think about it, you were already you when you were a baby, before you were even able to talk in any language, although in you lay the potential to learn them all.
Confusing the image with the essence
The thing is, as human beings in the physical world, we tend to identify so much with the expression of ourselves that we can’t clearly see the reality of who we are.
We become separated from our true selves. We confuse the image with the essence. We forget that we are not our names, we are not our bodies, we are not our jobs, our possessions, our appearances. We are not even our language. These are just the unique ways we choose to express who we are.
Reconnecting with the plurality of being you
Beyond all these temporary aspects of your reality, when you know who you truly are, at the essence of you, then there’s no need to be afraid. The same way you know that you aren’t the distorted image you can see in a shattered mirror in front of you, you can recognize that you aren’t the words you speak.
Instead, take a deep breath and trust.
Feeling different in the various languages we speak is not a “loss of the self,” it is a finding. It is reconnecting with our plural nature, with the infinite possibilities that our life holds. It is remembering who we are.
The more you accept the plurality of your being, the easier it becomes to navigate the different shapes of you. A surprising process, of course, that reveals the complexity of our human psychology and development.
What it implies is to go beyond the comfort of learning on your own with your pretty textbooks. It implies imitation. It implies movement, empathy and connections. It implies an exchange of energies.
It implies love.
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Thank you for reading me! This is an excerpt of the book I’m currently writing. I’m so excited to share some pieces of it with you and I’m looking forward to receiving your thoughts and reactions.
Also, if you’d like to experiment discovering your in French, don’t forget to dowload your free guide « The Mindful French Learner’s Guide ». Talk soon!