Something that readers might not have known about myself is my enthusiasm for learning the world’s languages and being able to speak as many of them as possible. To share with you guys the linguistic journey I’ve undertaken so far, I made a new video to document that journey, using the various languages I’ve picked up along the way.
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Why Learn Languages?
I grew up speaking English at school and Mandarin Chinese at home, so those two were freebies for me. I was also exposed to plenty of Cantonese as a result of living in Hong Kong, and so picked up a few words and phrases over the seven or so years that I lived there. However, it was in Grade 4 that I began studying French as a foreign language, and I’m ever so grateful to my parents for having allowed me to do so. Since then, I’ve added Spanish, Portuguese, and some elementary Japanese to my linguistic repertoire.
Here’s a not-exhaustive list of all the benefits I’ve personally seen from studying languages:
- It makes travel so much more fulfilling. A tourist who can speak the language is automatically seen in a different light. People see that you’ve taken the time to bring yourself closer to their cultures and will be keen to chat and exchange stories with you. That ability to connect with the locals really adds a dimension of richness to your trip that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
- It makes travel less stressful. Being able to communicate in the local language – even if it’s just a few words – goes a long way, and can save you plenty of time and frustration as you’re trying to buy a subway ticket or order a meal at a restaurant.
- It brings you closer to other cultures. Even leaving travel aside for a moment, research has shown that language affects everything we do, from our personalities, to the way we perceive time, and even to our deep-seated moral values. By learning another language, you’re inherently expanding your worldview and understanding a new way of thinking beyond what you’ve picked up from your native language. "Learn a new language and get a new soul,” as the Czech proverb goes.
- It comes in handy at a moment’s notice. Like any skill, you never know when you’ll be able to draw upon your language skills in a pinch. I’m reminded of the time I saw a young boy trapped on the rocky outcroppings of Barcelona’s Sant Sebastià Beach, having gotten a spiny sea urchin stuck in his foot. The boy didn’t speak any English, and my Spanish was also pretty much non-existent at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I could help him – that is until I tried speaking French to him. Voilà, the little boy understood what I was saying, and I was able to help bring him back to shore and give him to his mother.
- It’s keeps your mind sharp and builds discipline. Learning a language is a huge undertaking, and true fluency can only achieved with years and years of practice and continuous use. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest intellectual challenges and a great way to keep your mind sharp.
My Tips for Learning Languages
Here’s the thing about picking up a foreign language: it’s all about sustained effort over a long period of time, rather than fits and bouts of motivation followed by long periods of inactivity. Unfortunately, a lot of people – myself included, sometimes – tend to exhibit the latter type of behaviour, so it’s all about making it as easy for yourself as possible and integrating your language learning into your daily life.
Mobile phone apps are designed exactly for this, and Duolingo is the big one in this space. This app has really taken the world by storm and brought easy language learning to the masses. For English speakers, it currently offers over 30 language courses, and what I love about it is that it also has courses for speakers who speak other languages natively. You can go at your own pace and either attempt to “complete the tree” as quickly as possible (gaining a basic understanding of a wider range of the target language) or “level up” your skills as much as possible (solidifying your grasp of the language, but learning new content at a slower pace).
Say you have a trip to Brazil coming up, like I did back in 2014 when I started working on the Portuguese tree. Just 10 minutes of practice a day, in the few months leading up to your trip, will make a huge difference when the time comes to negotiate a taxi outside the airport in Rio de Janeiro.
Other apps like Tandem are also very useful, but require a bit more involvement and commitment on your part, because they connect you with other language learners to chat face-to-face. Meanwhile, the more you’re able to integrate your new language into your daily routine – for example, by listening to podcasts or speaking with a colleague – the faster you’ll be able to pick up on the more subtle parts of the language, such as regional variations and slang, which tend to be the major obstacle for those looking to achieve proficiency.
Every time I hear someone speaking Italian I always take note of how beautiful the language is. However, it doesn’t seem to be all too useful outside of Italy (unlike French or Spanish, which help unlock large swathes of the world from a linguistic perspective), so it probably won’t be a priority anytime soon.
Conversely, German would probably be quite useful to know, but I can’t help but find its harsh, grating register to be a little off-putting. To be fair, that’s probably an overgeneralization on my part, although it has to play a part in why so many language learners opt to learn the Romance languages over their Germanic counterparts.
In terms of the immediate future, I’ll probably have to develop a basic grasp of Russian if I want to survive along the Trans-Siberian Railway this upcoming summer – certainly at least enough to be able to tell Cyrillic letters apart and read from a phrasebook correctly.
The road to polyglottism is long and challenging. I'm very fortunate to have been exposed to multiple languages growing up and to have had the interest in foreign languages fostered within me since a young age, as it's been immensely helpful along my travels and also added further fuel to my passion for learning more about the world.