Learning a new language is a wondrous adventure. You travel in history, experience the culture, and taste a new way of living simply by learning the words that culture uses to express those concepts. But do you remember feeling the same emotions and sensations when you learned your first language – the one belonging to the culture you were born to? Probably not.
Acquiring Your Mother Tongue vs Learning a Foreign Language
There’s not much critical thinking involved when learning your native language. You learn to speak at a lightning fast speed, and amazingly you make up for anything that’s unknown or yet not solidified as a language rule through creative improvisation and substitutions. Children have an amazing capacity for vocabulary and communication that allows them to pick up a language without formal education, in a process that’s mostly unconscious.
Learning a language as an adult, however, is a different story. You already possess your native tongue, and you have experiences, emotions, beliefs, and opinions that influence and even interfere with your new language learning.
When you learn a second or third language your very own language often gets in the way. It leads you you make false assumptions about grammar rules and syntax, it confuses you with rules that do not exist in your language, and it leaves you feeling frustrated that you cannot find a corresponding entity or function in your mother tongue.
But that frustration, that ennui is surprisingly pleasurable if you look at it from the right perspective. You can in fact derive great satisfaction from learning a language so unfamiliar and disconnected from your own. You’re forced to reconsider the universality of your own language and understand how language defines your thinking and permeates your reality so extensively.
As the renowned Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has said:
“[T]he limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”
Expand your reality, expand the place you inhabit
What’s so marvelous about language is the way that it expands your reality. Where you used to have only one tool to make sense of your world, now you have two. This is true especially if you’re learning a language that’s vastly different from your own because it belongs to a different language family; the linguistic and mental shock can be even greater.
It’s one thing for a Spanish native speaker to learn Italian. It’s an entirely different thing for an English native speaker to learn traditional Chinese.
When you learn a totally unfamiliar language, you can’t help feeling like a child. You are a clean slate. You learn everything from scratch. It’s not just a new language, it’s a new culture and a whole lot of history. A brand new world awaiting discovery.
As you advance your language learning and you shyly start speaking the language, a sense of empowerment arises. You feel a growing pleasure, and you feel more in control because you can use a language – a string of words and sounds that was previously completely unknown – to communicate. Even something as simple as learning how to express a feeling or statement in another language makes you feel powerful.
There are many reasons to learn a new language, but one of the most pleasurable is to get the freedom that comes from the ability to communicate in and understand a different language. Yes, learning a new language has many professional and social benefits, but none can compare to the euphoria experienced when you achieve the previously unimaginable: gaining a new tool for communication.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments