When I was three years old my mom sent me to a Greek language preschool, and suddenly my dolls were ροζ (roh-z) not pink. My firetruck was κόκκινο (koh-kee-no) instead of red, and my sliced apple was now a μήλο (mee-lo). I can’t quite imagine what was going through my little kid head when suddenly all of the objects in my life belonged to these new words, but there are times when learning a new language where I’m staring at another grown adult who’s talking to me in another language and I’m feeling just like that three year old.
Now, when we speak our native language we don’t think twice about the day-to-day words. We know that sleek silver machine on wheels riding down the road is a car, that thing on the end of our leg that takes us around town is our foot, and the color of the sky is blue, or grey if you live in Normandy.
When you’re learning another language the littlest thing can cause a mix-up, a stress-out, a misunderstanding, but it can also lead to unexpected and wonderful experiences.
Multiple studies conducted on people who speak more than one language have shown numerous benefits such as making bilinguals better at filtering information, improving their memory and focus, and helping them make better long-term decisions. But what about the individual, beneficial experiences that aren’t going to show up in the overarching language studies?
Because let’s be honest, most people who learn a new language aren’t doing it to get better at filtering information. They’re doing it to connect with new people and new cultures, and to have new experiences. So in the spirit of being grateful for all the good that language learning has brought me, I sat down one afternoon and made a list of all of the things that never would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t tried to learn multiple languages.
Some are not so great (getting a pretty bad hair coloring in a French hair salon because of a miscommunication) and some have changed my life for the better (teaching English abroad), but every single one has made my life a little more exciting. Give my list a read and then make one of your own. I even challenge you to take it one step further and make yourself a language bucket list. Where will learning a new language take you?
- I got to spend a summer being an Au Pair in a small village in the French Alps with a population of 380.
- I have been able to be a high school English teacher in Normandy.
- I met my French boyfriend and have been able to experience a romantic relationship in another language.
- I managed to resolve an issue in my far-from-perfect Spanish: I found a place to sleep after finding out there was a problem with my reservation at my hostel in Peru.
- I got my first ever paid writing job (!!)
- I have been able to make friends from all over the world (Mexico, France, Spain, Italy, England, Bolivia…)
- I started my just-for-fun travel blog and have been able to explore a lot of other language-related passion projects.
- I somehow made it to a waterfall in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica with only my limited Spanish skills, a piece of paper with the name of the waterfall written on it, two different taxi drivers, and a nondescript wooden sign at the end of a dirt road.
- I was able to help a lost French couple that I crossed paths with in Key West.
- I got the incredible opportunity to listen to an elderly French woman explain her experience in a concentration camp during World War II.
- I made friends with my neighbors during a summer in a small Grecian village.
- I ate some of the most amazing meals from my neighbors in said small Grecian village.
- I get to understand bilingual memes.
- I somehow guided a Greek taxi driver to my Yiayia’s house using only the words “church,” “yes,” “no,” and various hand gestures.
- I was able to connect in multiple languages with a friend group made up of one Bolivian, one Mexican-American, one Portuguese, and myself.
- I have been able to experience my own life through a completely different cultural lens. I really recommend this podcast episode by NPR’s Hidden Brain for anyone curious about how language can shape how we view the world.
- I get to understand what gossipping tourists say when they think nobody can understand them. It’s only rude 50% of the time.
- I got a pretty horrible hair dye job one time after thinking that I eloquently explained what I wanted (pictures and all) until I went from a brunette with highlights to a full on blonde.
- I laughed until I cried with my friends when I explained to them how a one-word mispronunciation changed the whole meaning of something I said in French. It happened when I was reading an old French children’s book about a love story between a little boy and girl to a group of French children. Somehow I ended the story with a sentence on sodomy instead of a simple kiss on the neck. How this might happen you may ask? Just one little mistake.
First, you need to know that the word un cou (pronounced with the same oo in “you”) means “neck,” whereas un cul (pronounced with an oo sound that we don’t use in English) means “a**.” And second, technically baiser in both its noun form and its verb form means “kiss,” but over time the meaning of the verb form has changed to mean a vulgar way to say “have sex” and the verb embrasser is now used to say “to kiss” Unfortunately, due to the fact that this book was still using the old form of baiser and a linguistic hypercorrection on my part, suddenly the end of this adorable story where the little girl l’a baisé dans le cou (kissed him on his neck) became l’a baisé dans le cul (f***ed him in the a**). And then they both lived happily ever after. The end.
- I was made to eat a rabbit, a whole fish (head and all), and entire plates of steak and pork chops during my first trip to Greece, because I couldn’t explain that I was vegetarian. I wish I’d known how to say ευχαριστώ αλλά είμαι χορτοφάγη (thanks, but I’m vegetarian).
- Unfortunately, I did not learn from my un cou vs. un cul mistake the first time around and I once accidentally tried to flirtily tell my boyfriend when I first started dating him to kiss my a** instead of my neck. How romantic.
As we learned from number twenty-one, just because we make a mistake once won’t necessarily stop us from making it again. I’m sure the longer I stay abroad and the more languages I learn the longer my list will get. But, thankfully, I can confidently say I no longer mix up the two oo sounds in French and am no longer reading X-rated stories to children.
The best thing about learning languages for me is that for every mistake there is an equally wonderful experience that makes everything worth it.
So when you’re learning a new language, as the French say, ne prends pas la tête, (literally: don’t take the head) or don’t worry about it. When mistakes arise just try to remind yourself of all the good language learning can bring you. So embrace that inner three year-old, learn that language, and don’t take the head—I mean—don’t worry.