listening

Why learn another language?

Learning another language makes you a better person. Here´s why:

Years ago when I was living in Mozambique with Gerome, from France, and Flavia, from Brazil, we tried an experiment. We each spoke in our native tongue and then afterward tried to translate what we heard into English. Even though Gerome didn´t speak Portuguese and Flavia didn´t speak French they were able to catch almost everything the other said. I on the other hand couldn´t remember a word. Gerome said that ¡t´s because Americans don´t know how to listen. I got offended, but then he said it´s understandable because we are not surrounded by different languages. We can drive for ten hours and still only hear English, but in Europe or Latin America, you can drive one hour and hear an entirely different language. They have to learn to listen or else they could never get by.

In class, I´m realizing how little I listen. I catch myself tuning out my teacher all the time because I don´t understand her. But I´m making an huge effort to listen and it makes a world of difference. If I can take this concentration back with me to New York, imagine how much more I will hear. Maybe I´ll actually be able to quote a real fact from the news, instead of just estimating the figures. Maybe I´ll hear a friend´s hint for a good birthday present, when before it would have just passed over me. Perhaps I´ll hear someone´s complaint before coming up with my defense.

Last night there was a party at the school to welcome the new students. We spoke in Spanish for as long as we could, but after a while it became obvious that we were genuinely interested in each other and our knowledge of Spanish just wasn’t cutting it. There’s only so much you can learn about a person from questions like

How many brothers do you have?

What is your favorite color?

Do you like food?

So we gave up and started speaking English. The students are diverse. At my table, I was talking to people from Turkey, France, Germany, The Ukraine, Brazil and Belgium. And everyone was fluent in English. It made me realize how lucky I am to have English as my primary language, because it truly is universal. Then it made me realize how important it is to learn a second language. We could not have become friends if they hadn’t first made the effort to learn English. Imagine how many people am I excluding from friendship because I don´t speak their language and they don´t speak mine.

Besides for opening up doors to friendship, it´s also really fun to eavesdrop. Yesterday, I was at the grocery store, and there was an old woman ahead of me at the cashier. When she heard the total for her groceries she started yelling, in Spanish, ¨That´s too expensive. You can´t make an old woman pay that. I won´t do it!” and the cashier told her she could have a 20% discount. I thought that was pretty funny, and I would have missed it all if I didn´t understand any Spanish.