Learning a new language is more than just getting a useful new skill. It is a true transforming process that can become nothing short of a spiritual experience.
Sure, learning languages is practical. Personally, being a native Italian speaker, I had to learn English soon, if I wanted to travel outside my home country and be understood by anyone. Later on, being fluent in English got me my first decently paid job.
But I soon realized that the practical benefits were just one aspect of the equation. Having now studied six different languages, I can say that there are at least three incredibly deep benefits to learning a new language:
- It expands the field of our consciousness;
- It helps us understand how our mind is structured, and
- It heightens our connection with the rest of the human population.
Not bad, right? Let’s have a look at each one of these amazing things that learning a language can do for us.
Expanding our field of consciousness.
By learning new languages, we can literally think about things we had never thought before. Each and every language shapes the world in a different way, and by learning a new one, we can learn to “see” the world with different eyes.
For a Portuguese speaker, the feeling of “saudade” is a distinct emotion, but English speakers have a hard time understanding it. In Italian, there is a clear difference between “blu,” “azzurro” and “celeste;” in English, they are perceived as just different shades of the same colour, blue.
One of the most beautiful examples of this is the Spanish distinction between “ser” and “estar.” In English, they both mean “to be.” But to a Spanish speaker, there is a deep difference between being something permanently (ser) and being something only temporarily (estar). Isn’t that fascinating?
Understanding our mind better.
Not only does language heavily influence the way we think, but a certain function of our mind basically amounts to speaking inside our head. It’s a linguistic activity.
You know that “voice in our head” that usually accompanies our thoughts? That voice is actually speaking in one of the languages we know (and if you speak a few, the voice sometimes switches from one to another). Let’s call this the “mind voice.”
If we need to solve a relatively complex mental task that involves logic and abstraction, that internal dialogue is useful. But in some other cases, it is more of a hindrance. Most of us have lost control over that chattering voice and we are unable to stop it, or even just focus it at will.
Most meditation and concentration techniques are in fact tools to help us regain control of that verbal stream, and eventually be able to stop it and enjoy the silence.
What has this all got to do with learning a language? By learning new languages, it becomes possible to dis-identify from the voice and access something deeper.
Once we speak, let’s say, three different languages, the mind voice can utilise any one of them. We may be thinking about a chair, and our internal voice may be saying “chair” or “silla.” But this can give birth to a powerful realization: our mind voice is just talking about things.
Which means that our thoughts are just labels, symbols. And that there is something deeper than those thoughts, something that doesn’t change whether our internal voice speaks one language or another.
The mind is revealed for what it is: a useful, versatile tool. But just a tool. This allows us to dis-identify ourselves from it, and contemplate the substrate that lies hidden under those words.
Learning languages helps us sever the identification with words, and thus with thoughts. It is one of the best ways to access something non-verbal and deeper.
Connecting with the rest of the human population.
It is obvious that by learning a new language we can communicate with more people. But there is more. Learning languages gives us a better overall understanding of humanity. Learning someone’s language allows us to understand how that person thinks and perceives reality, to put ourselves in his or her shoes.
We simply can’t understand deeply a person or a culture without learning at least the basics of the corresponding language. I spent a few years living in Thailand, and one of my first efforts was to learn the language. Although Thai isn’t easy, learning it increased my understanding of Thai society dramatically.
As an example, in Thai, you use completely different sets of words to refer to someone younger or older than you. Once you speak Thai, you immediately and practically realize how important age and respect is in this culture.
And yet, once we speak a few different languages, we realize that on a deep level, we are all one. No matter how different they are, all languages speak about life, death, love, and the challenges of human existence. By learning languages we can at the same time appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of each culture, and realize that underlying all those differences, we are all alike. That almost amounts to a spiritual insight, if you ask me.
In short, learning languages is fun, useful, and profound. It deepens our understanding of ourselves, and of humanity. It doesn’t have any contraindication or side effects. And it keeps our brain in excellent shape. Isn’t that enough to make you want to learn a new one?
Author: Raffaello Manacorda
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Matt Flores/Unsplash~