I’ve been teaching private English classes in Santiago de Chile for the past month and a half (more to come on that later). With all my new students, I start with the same question: “What is your motivation for learning English?” This has led me to start asking myself (with all the effort I’ve been pouring into a skill that does not come easily for me): “Why am I trying so hard to learn Spanish?”
There are countless incentives for learning a second (or third, or fourth, or twentieth) language. Speaking from the perspective of a native English speaker, our language has certainly become the modem world’s lingua franca. Although English remains third on the list of total native speakers, it is by far the world’s most widely spoken language by the total number of speakers. It’s hard to travel anywhere in the developed world without finding someone who doesn’t (at the very least) recognize “hello!” or “bathroom”. For better or for worse our music, our culture, and our politics can be heard further away from home than you might guess.
But learning English, or any second language for that matter, grants one more than just ease of travel. There are financial incentives and greater career opportunities afforded to one who can converse with clients and business partners. There are romantic reasons: maybe you’ve always had a thing for a French girl and you want to improve your chances or you want to woo your Brazilian crush in his native Portuguese. There are poetic reasons too: speakers of Arabic, Japanese, and so many others will be able express things that we will never have a word for in English.
For me, these are all important incentives. But in addition to that, I am searching for something deeper. As someone who speaks English, I’m able to interact with so much of the world in my native language even if it’s not theirs. Quite honestly, this makes travel pretty easy for me. When talking with new friends, I also get to dominate the conversation as I’ve got a whole arsenal of vocabulary for all the topics I might want to discuss in English.
But when I speak a second language, I feel that I’m holding something back. I speak in truncated phrases and tend to keep quiet if I don’t enough vocabulary on the subject I really want to get into. In the past, at a more basic level, conversations had tended to end soon after I had given my name, my age, and what I studied in school.
I have a feeling that the same thing happens in varying degrees to my friends who do not speak English as a first language. Across many of the countries I’ve been to, I’ve made many friends that speak different levels of English. Sometimes our conversations would be limited to a laborious effort of counting to 5 in each other’s languages such as an exchange I had with a Khmer boy on a bus. Other times we’d find a long list of bands in common through a Spanglish conversation over coffees. These interactions were incredibly important to me and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I have a feeling that even with my near-fluent friends, there are things that my new friends were holding back.
So what’s my motivation? To get to know more people. To listen more and learn from as many people as possible. Over 12% of the US population is made up of native Spanish speakers and across the Americas, there is a total of 418 million native speakers. While I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know so many wonderful Hispanic Americans in my native language, I’m getting increasingly interested in what parts of different cultures I’m missing out on. I’m becoming more certain that I can only accomplish this if I’m speaking their language. Let’s get to know our neighbors.
There’s a great quote from Nelson Mandela that has served as a great inspiration to me during my advancement in language learning. I’ll leave it you with to ponder upon until I’m back. In the meantime, let me know what your thoughts are on language learning. Any bi(poly)lingual readers on this thing?
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”– Nelson Mandela
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