I’ve always been fascinated with languages. I remember being twelve and begging my mother to let me take French lessons because I was in love with the culture. I took French for several years as well as in college before switching over to Italian, which I’ve been taking off and on while living in Italy. It never occurred to me that it might be a lot of work for nothing, or that there might not be a reason for me to use another language—I was learning French so when I went to France, I could speak along with the locals.
When living in Italy, I was asked by numerous people why I wanted to work on my Italian. “You won’t use it once you leave Italy!” they exclaimed. “What’s the point? You already know the universal language.”
They had a point. We English speakers are lucky because our language is pretty much taught everywhere. I was amazed when I was in the backwoods of Slovenia and I was able to have meaningful conversations with everyone I came in contact with. The more I traveled and realized that I didn’t have to know the native language in order to speak with new friends, the more I began to question whether or not it’s necessary to learn a foreign language at all.
However, the answer isn’t so black and white. I took a neuropsychology course in college and we discussed how learning a foreign language is not only just a useful skill to list on a resume or when you are abroad, but how it can actually change the way your brain is mapped. In fact, some neuropsychologists argue that you can’t fully experience a culture unless you learn the native language. Your brain begins to think in a different mindset culturally when you are connecting with others by using another language.
Would my experiences in France and Italy have been different if I had been unable to communicate in another language? Yes. Very much so. I think in an entirely new way when speaking another language. Not only has it served as an exercise for my brain, but it has also helped me to view the Italian and French cultures from a new perspective than I wouldn’t have gained otherwise.
Have you learned a foreign language for your travels? Did it help you?
Image courtesy of Open Grid Scheduler.