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The Value of Learning a Foreign Language

When you live abroad, there is simply no getting around the importance of learning the local language. I have lived in many countries, and know what a difference even one phrase can make, when spoken to a native. 

Here is what I have come to learn about the power and necessity of learning a foreign language: 

Learning the local language is essential. When I first lived in France as a teenager, I had three years of high school French under my belt, but I couldn’t put sentences together. The result was a communication style built on a combination of dictionary searches, animated hand and body gestures, and a notebook in which I wrote down every new word and phrase I learned. I lived with a French host family, and my efforts to learn French were appreciated, and allowed me to gain more insight into the culture. 

The best way to learn a language is to speak it all day, every day for as long as possible. If you don’t have this opportunity, then make a commitment to try for at least one hour a day. It is only by speaking the local language that you will be able to develop meaningful friendships with locals. 

Learning a new language is exhausting. Whether you end up speaking it for an hour, or a day, some part of the brain becomes engaged that will likely have you reeling with exhaustion much earlier in the day than you expect. It’s a strange experience, but once you realize that you’ve gone a day speaking a foreign language without virtually passing out, you’ll realize how much progress you’ve made! 

Language enables you to stand up for yourself. This may not be one of the things you think about when planning your move overseas. Like it or not, after you relocate, you will one day find yourself in a situation where you feel taken advantage of, or unjustly treated. When I worked in Paris, I accompanied two friends to the Café Oz for a drink one evening. We stood near the bar, and after some time there, I felt the pressure of someone behind me leaning against me. I turned, thinking perhaps they were drunk, or they might stop, but, it turned out the woman leaning on me simply wanted to stand where I was standing. Her eyes greeted mine, and she said, in French, “You could move out of the way!” Without thinking, I replied, also in French, “No problem. All you have to do is say excuse me.” She stared at me, dumbfounded, clearly not expecting me to speak French, and then moved away. It was a small victory, but a huge triumph.  

Once you can stand up for yourself in a foreign language, you not only earn respect, but you will also understand that your fluency is improving, which inspires great confidence. 

Language allows you to communicate your core needs. Sure, you can depend on someone to help you figure out directions, or, nowadays with a cell phone, maybe even use pictures to get your point across, but speaking the local language will help you a great deal when it comes to more urgent matters, like being sick. Imagine being in a doctor’s office and trying to explain your malady, and not understanding the diagnosis.

I was grateful for my elementary Spanish when I traveled throughout Spain with my mother several years ago. Towards the end of our trip, she ended up with the flu, and I ended up with stomach troubles. Of the two of us, I was the only one who could get out of bed, so I headed to the drugstore. I waited on line as patiently as I could, and when I got to the counter, tried to explain our symptoms. It took several minutes, with much repetition, and me trying to act out my mother’s shivering and fever, but I tried every Spanish word I could think of, and the pharmacist was eager to help me, no doubt because she knew how hard I was trying to speak her language, instead of imposing my English. The result was that I was able to get us both the right medicine. 

It’s better to speak a foreign language imperfectly, than not to speak it at all. I know many people feel embarrassed or afraid of making mistakes when trying to speak a new language. Sometimes, their fear has led them to isolate themselves at home, in an effort to avoid being laughed at. However, in my experience, laughter is often-times a very bonding experience.  

I remember a former French colleague addressing a room full of senior level Executives. While giving his presentation, he meant to say, “From the belly of the beast”, but, instead, it came out, “from the bowels of the beast.” When the entire room erupted into heavy laughter, he realized his error. From that point onwards, he held the full attention of everyone in the room. 

Learning a foreign language is a huge accomplishment. Language has the power to break down communications barriers, and foster greater cultural and human understanding. It is an amazing experience to be able to make yourself heard in a language that is not maternal to you, and the experience will open many doors.