Three women- Caucasian, Latina and Black- seated on a couch with three triangular mirrors frames on the wall behind them

The process of learning a different language can feel frustrating and burdensome. As children, we may have spent hours in the classroom rehearsing verb tenses in Spanish, memorizing nouns in German or painfully producing phrases in French—only to forget what we had learned a couple years later. 

What we may not have understood as kids, however, is that learning a foreign language can be one of the most valuable experiences we acquire as students. Learning to communicate in a different language and persevering through the challenges that this process necessitates will help us to communicate with patience, gain understanding and learn to sympathize with others. A second language is a path to greater kindness.

A second language is a path to greater kindness.

As a former English Language teacher—and speaker of two foreign languages—I can attest to the incredible frustration, near-nauseating difficulty, and finally, euphoric victory of learning to speak a foreign language. The most rewarding thing about learning another language is not the intellectual mastery. It is the ability to feel as someone else feels, to understand the world from another perspective and to know the stress and the isolation of being “other” in a culture not quite your own.

Here are three qualities that learning a different language will help us to cultivate—ultimately making us kinder people. 

Patience

Anyone who has sat through a lesson on French syntax or conjugation of Spanish verbs knows that language is hard. It doesn’t come overnight for anyone, and it requires an extraordinary amount of patience with ourselves and with others. Learning how to say “Hello,” “What time is it?” and finally, “Can I get a latte?” may be simple, but once we progress to the more advanced stages of language (expressing complex emotions, beliefs or opinions), communication breakdown can cause despair.

While living in Morocco, I was shown exceptional patience and kindness from friends, neighbors and local shopkeepers during my own language-learning process. They waited for me silently and compassionately while I generated simple phrases like “Where can I buy olive oil?” in dialectical Arabic. Even more significantly, Moroccans showed me an equal amount of kindness when I was trying to express my opinions, my core values and my own story of why I moved to their country.

Advancing from one stage of foreign language to the next takes time. When we learn to be patient with ourselves in the process, we’re able to show the same patience to others in their own processes of learning.

Three women looking down at their feet while tying their shoes along a brick wall

Understanding

For those of us who are not considered minorities in your own culture, the experience of being “other”—if only felt in a small way—can transform the way that we understand people from different cultures.

A second language is not only a new set of words. It is an entirely new way of thinking. When we understand the nuances of a communication style, we may better understand why people of different cultures have certain values or priorities. I have learned, for example, that many conversations in Arabic begin with an obligatory “How are your parents?” While this question may be considered a bit strange to begin a conversation in English, this simple question shows a value for family in Arab culture.

Different priorities and values are not always consciously chosen. They are often ingrained into us by the way we have learned to interact with the world around us and how we learn to express our needs, desires and opinions.

Sympathy

Many of us have relatives and descendants who, at one time or another, moved to our home country and learned a new language. Although we may learn a foreign language under different circumstances, the process can help us to sympathize with the stressful undertaking of acquiring a new mode of communication—without which we could not work, form relationships or participate in society.

In a small way, we are the minority when we learn a different language. All of a sudden, we are limited in the way we can express who we are and what we think. Language barriers can be incredibly frustrating, causing us to feel misunderstood or not heard. If we are open to it, then we can allow this part of the process to cultivate sympathy for those who are “other” in our own culture.

In the end, learning a different language can be a path to kindness because it stretches our boundaries, causes us to put aside ease and convenience and compels us to lay down our pride—often, for the sake of having a simple conversation with another human being. A second (or third, fourth or fifth) language is paved with sacrifice. It requires time, effort and energy without which we could not reach our goal: to speak with someone different from ourselves.

Learning a different language can be a path to kindness because it stretches our boundaries.

It may be that you are still a student and have ample time and opportunity to begin taking a foreign language class. Perhaps, you may be busy with a full-time job or small children and have the desire but not the schedule for traditional language study. In any case, here are three steps to acquiring a foreign language:

1. Be creative with study

If you don’t have the budget (or time) to take a class, then consider a language study app that you can listen to in the car or on your lunch break. The best way to learn a language is not by seeing it but by hearing it. This will help you to mimic the sounds and intonations yourself.

2. Seek out a language partner


I spent nine years studying French, but I only truly learned the language when I began taking weekly walks with a young Moroccan girl. I gained more confidence in a couple hours a week of broken, stumbling conversation than I did in years of writing essays (apology to my former French teachers).

3. Imitate, don’t translate

Do not attempt to translate your native language into a foreign language. It may be that you use the word “cool” or “whatever” frequently in English, but there might not be a legitimate translation in the language you are learning. Listen to the phrases that native speakers use themselves and imitate those.

Have you learned a foreign language? What are your tips on how to learn a language?

Images via Jason Barbagelott

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