“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
In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, it is stated that without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry or savour their songs. We are not different people with separate languages; we are one people, with different tongues.
Most of the world population speaks more than one language but being multilingual is not all it is cut out to be. Is learning a new language easy? How difficult can it be? Can I speak another language in a week? Anyone can do it, right? Wrong! In my case, nothing could be further from the truth.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”– Ludwig Wittgenstein
My love of languages began somewhere in my teens, along with an obsessive desire to travel the world. It was during those long summer holidays when I was neither a child nor an adult – when going out with friends needed parental permission. I was bored. I thought it would be fun to learn another language, to escape in a world that only existed in books, magazines, and films. I was young, eager, and naïve.
As tempting as it was to be taught by a professional, unfortunately I could not afford the fee. My next best action was to borrow books from the library, and apply myself to learn German, Italian, and Spanish. Bizarrely, I did not appreciate that I was already fluent in three other languages. Yes, I was lucky growing up surrounded by more than half a dozen languages. But I was determined that three more would open my horizon. Ah, how the youth can be so ignorant!
I must have fried my brain or hit a plateau. Or maybe those early Latin lessons killed my enthusiasm because, it took me many decades to get anywhere close to perfection. Even now, there are times when I do not have a clue what word is coming out of my mouth. I admit I cannot make it pass the basic conversation, to the point of making a fool of myself in front of an audience.
“French is the language that turns dirt in romance.” – Stephen King
When my first child was born, I was dissuaded to introduce another language for fear she might be confused and mix up languages. I moved to a trilingual country and solved the problem for both her and her siblings; from birth, their brains have been wired to adjust to being bilingual. Although they are fluent in both languages, we have adopted ‘Frenglish’ or ‘Franglais’ at home. We use more English in our sentence structure when speaking in French.
“A different language is a different vision of life.” – Federico Fellini
I have features that could pass for a local, depending in which country I am travelling. One can see it as hilarious but to my children (language police), it is pathetic whenever someone speak to me in their foreign language and I reply with ‘yah’. It does not matter if they are speaking Russian, Korean or Arabic. To tell the truth I do not even know why I do it. Maybe I am too scared to check into my shallow list of vocabulary. Or maybe when in deep Russia, where no one speaks any other language, ‘Yah’ is forcibly acceptable.
Some years ago, on arrival at Orlando International, a security officer spoke to me in Spanish. Having spent nine hours on a flight, my brain did not register the language. I looked at her, shrugged, and out came ‘yah’. She must have thought I was stupid for she did not press on. I am lucky I did not get detained for further questioning.
“To learn a new language is to open another window from which to see the world.” – Chinese proverb
The brain, as any muscle, likes to exercise, so being fluent in two or more languages keeps the brain healthy and active. Studies have proven that it helps to delay symptoms of alzeimer’s disease. Our ability to multi-task and our concentration increase. Our memory improves and we become good at problem-solving.
I am aware I am not good at everything and I know some people are perfectly able to craft a very well-constructed sentence in whatever language they put their mind to. But there are other ways I can make myself understood. I am open-minded, empathetic and have good listening skills – I can easily connect to other cultures of the world. Using creative-skills, with mimes and key words, I stretch my vocabulary two thousandfold. I wing it. Happy days.