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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language

Last week, I found myself standing in line at a bakery around the corner from my apartment, waiting to pick up a couple of baguettes to bring home for dinner and the next day's breakfast. As I often do here in Paris, I stared down everyone in the line trying to guess if they were Parisian or not. Usually, tourists seem to flock to the bakeries in the morning to pick up croissants and bread for breakfast, so for the most part the evening crowd at the bakery consists of neighborhood clientele. There was one lady in front of me though that seemed to be different. Judging by the way she was dressed and skin tone, I guessed Portuguese or Spanish, though I am no expert on the matter.

As she ordered what she wanted, she resorted to pointing at things and making noises like "unh" and "eh" and "ah". These were more like things that an infant might mutter. I thought to myself how I knew that feeling when I visited bakeries in Hungary and Poland, when I had absolutely no idea what to say, other than the words for "hello," "please," and "thank you." In between those pleasantries, I resorted to guttural noises. It's not because we want to sound like this, it's just we don't know what else to do, and so we are left with nonsensical gibberish to explain our desire.

It is while I was regarding this scene that I began to think how this lady, who could be considered very intelligent with a deep vocabulary in her own culture is rendered just short of helpless here in Paris. It was also during this moment that I began to think of the importance of learning a foreign language, which leads to the topic of this week's article.

I am big supporter of those that make the efforts to learn a foreign language. To start off, I believe that it doesn't even really matter which foreign language one tries to learn. Rather, the process itself is a valuable experience which promotes a greater understanding of the world around you. I remember once talking with a friend who was considering studying abroad in Greece, but decided against it because she felt that there would be little use for learning Greek. Perhaps she may never speak Greek again after leaving the country, but the process of learning a foreign language gives insight to cultural nuances that an outsider could never learn. It allows a the student of the language to think in a different way, to see things as someone in the language's country would see it. More words, more wisdom, more understanding.

Not every word or phrase can be translated literally from one language to another. One example I hear often in French is n'importe quoi. The best translation I can think of is "no matter what" in English, but in context, the phrase c'est vraiment n'importe quoi! is made ridiculous when translated to its literal English equivalent, "That is really no matter what!" One might even find that they prefer certain expressions in other languages compared to their own. For me at least, words like m├ęchant and bouger seem to flow better than their counterparts in English.

There are some downsides to the learning process. Compared to where I used to be when I lived in the United States, I sometimes feel like I take more time to speak than in the past. I spend time searching for words in my own language far more often today. In March 2009, I was back in St. Louis for two days while I was waiting on some visa paperwork to be processed in Chicago. I spent one evening at a friend's house, barbecuing and enjoying being outside in unseasonably warm weather. As my friends and I stood around the grill, looking intently at the burgers (as men usually do when a grill is around), I tried to ask if I needed to get the spatula. Only problem is I couldn't remember that damn word. The conversation went like this:

"Do you want me to get the...the...uh.."
"John-Paul, think before you speak."
"I honestly forgot the word for that thing to flip the burgers."
"A spatula? Wow you are getting dumb over there."

I'm lucky that I get the best of both worlds here: I speak English at work most of the time, and have accessibility to speak French whenever I want to as well. Otherwise, I would probably make more blunders like the one above.

To sum up my argument, if you have an interest in opening your eyes to the world around you, take a shot at learning a new language. Though you may remember next to none of the words down the road, the process of learning a foreign language allows us to come closer to understanding the differences between cultures, which in turn brings us all closer together.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

1 comment:

  1. Learning foreign languages is indeed very important nowadays.