20 January, 2014

Why Everyone Should Experience a New Language and Culture At Least Once in Their Life

There are few experiences quite as challenging as leaving behind everything you know and moving to another country. Not only do you have to get used to a whole new culture and set of social norms, you will most likely have to do all of this in a new language. Despite the difficulties that may (and most likely will) arise, I think everyone should take the leap and explore a new country and a new culture at least once in their life. There will be difficulties and miscommunications, but there will also be many new discoveries, both personal and cultural.

The primary reason I think everyone should gain firsthand experience of a new place is because it places your experiences from your home country in a global context. Living in a foreign country shows you just how subjective your experience of the world is. It allows you to see positive and negative things about your own culture that you may not have otherwise noticed, and you won't be able to take the same things for granted as you did before. It forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you question your own assumptions about what's "normal." I would especially encourage people from the United States to travel beyond our borders. For a variety of reasons, Americans tend to be very insular and believe that the world consists of and revolves around America, and that illusion needs to be shattered.

Learning a new language is a different but related question. Many people might argue, "I speak English and so does the rest of the Western world. Why should I bother learning another language?" There is some understandable logic in that statement: many people throughout the world, including the majority of Western Europe, speak English as a second language, and that makes being a tourist in other countries very convenient for English speakers. But I'm not talking about being a tourist. I'm talking about being an active participant in daily life. To do that, and to really understand the culture, you need to speak and understand at least some of the language. 

Here's the thing about learning another language, though: It's hard. It requires time, dedication, and the ability to ignore your fear. Speaking in a language that isn't your own, when you're not entirely sure if what you're saying is correct or will even be understood, takes guts. When I was in Spain, I often let my fear control what I said, who I talked to, and who I spent time with, and unfortunately this happens to many people who make a new start somewhere else. We gravitate towards what's comfortable, and most often what's comfortable is our native language. But learning a new language, besides being extremely helpful for cultural immersion and understanding, is a fascinating experience. It leads you to really examine how you express yourself, since often your adopted language will not contain the same words, the same structures, or even the same way to express emotions as your native one. Languages do not all follow a singular pattern that facilitates easy communication between any two people on Earth; on the contrary, languages evolve to meet the needs of the population speaking them. Different populations may have different needs or wants or ideas to express (very often based on cultural differences), which leads their languages in very different directions. (An example of this is the claim that some Inuit languages have hundreds of words for snow, whereas English has only one. This is in fact a debatable point, and it depends on how you define a word. For more information on this debate, click here.)

Despite the difficultly, though, learning a new language is not an impossible task. People learn new languages all the time, whether for necessity or as a hobby. Growing up in a monolingual family within a monolingual culture, I used to view successful mastery of a second or third language as the holy grail of personal achievement that I couldn't hope to replicate in my own life. Even while I was learning Spanish (which I began at age 14) I never allowed myself to believe that I would get good enough at it to actually live my life completely in that language. Unfortunately, it was exactly that doubt that led me to play it safe in Spain, when I had the perfect opportunity to improve my linguistic capabilities. Even when people I spoke to in Spanish would compliment my abilities, I never believed they were being genuine and I stubbornly held on to my burden of self-doubt. This time, with German, I'm trying to learn from my past mistakes and not let my doubt and fear get in the way. And I'm succeeding. I've stopped listening to that little voice in my head that tells me I can't do it, and now that I'm not being deafened by the background noise I am starting to realize that I'm pretty damn good at learning languages. It's exciting that after only 4.5 months of learning I can have a completely coherent conversation with someone in German. I can't get across very complicated ideas and I lack a lot of vocabulary, but that doesn't matter. The vocabulary and the complicated grammar will come later (well, the grammar is already complicated, but that's another story). The important thing is that I've made a lot of progress already and I'm not so nervous about speaking anymore. That was the largest hurdle I was anticipating before I started learning, and I'm proud of myself that I've already come as far as I have.

So even though it's a challenge, don't let your own doubts or the other doubters out there stop you from exploring the world. I hear many people say they would like to travel, and my advice to those people is: do it, especially when you're young and relatively unattached. And don't just travel as a tourist; actually experience the culture first-hand. Live with locals who speak the country's language. Eat at local restaurants and not just McDonalds. Don't go exclusively to places listed in tourist guide books (although, depending on the guide book, those places can be a good start). If you really commit to an authentic experience, you won't regret it. From my time spent living in both Spain and Germany, I have learned much more about the world and America's place in it, and also a lot about myself. Not everything I learned was good, but I value the lessons and the experiences that led to these discoveries. I could have stayed home where everything was familiar and comfortable, but comfort is no replacement for exploring the world.


  1. So despite your attempt to McKaley-proof this comment box, I have managed to erase a beautifully written response to your beautifully written blog.

    Trying this again: It bothers me when people think they understand a culture because they LIKE the "surface" aspects of the culture--things like food, music, etc. It's one thing to go to a country and spend a week there and say "yes, I had a good time and I enjoyed the things I did there." It's totally different to go to a country for a week and then come back believing that you have had a monumental, life-changing experience and that you now "understand" that culture. It would be like someone from Europe going to New York and eating a hamburger and then saying "I NOW KNOW ALL THAT IT IS TO BE AN AMERICAN. I TOTALLY GET THE AMERICAN LIFE." Obviously, no.

    What people MUST do to even begin to understand is, as you have said, actually try to LIVE within a different culture. I don't mean the exciting things, like seeing monuments and that sort of thing. I mean, trying to figure out how to send mail/buy medicine/start a bank account, etc. THOSE things, the boring every-day experiences, are the ones that allow you to actually experience a culture and it's people. I truly believe that, until you try to do these sorts of activities, you have no right to claim that you "understand" or even "like" a different culture. Until you do these things you like the "surface" of that cultural, the way someone likes hamburgers or Times Square.

    And again, as you have stated, living life in a different country requires learning how to live in a different language, which in and of itself can change your way of thinking and your perspectives in life in dramatic and fantastic ways. And and expanding, changing mind is always preferable to a static, stagnant one. Gell?

    1. I'm glad my argument about actually LIVING somewhere as opposed to traveling came across clearly. I think traveling as a tourist can be a useful enterprise in a different way and should also be encouraged, but to get the truly cultural perspective of a place, it is absolutely essential to commit the time and energy to see the culture from within.

      Also, I see what you mean about this sucky comment box.