A New Language: The Gift You Give to Others

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

“Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday”

When I was five years old, I spent four months in the Philippines with my mom’s family.

It was a culture shock for me. Also, I was a pretty bratty kid. I didn’t want to sleep on the bamboo mats at night, I was hotter than I ever remembered being in a country where it was 100° outside and there was no air conditioning, and nobody in the neighborhood had a TV.

As an adult, I’d like to think I’d take these things in stride, but being so young, I found the day-to-day life uncomfortable, at least in the beginning.

One day, my Filipino relatives heard that my birthday had passed, so they made me a bowl of sweet rice porridge with a giant candle in it and sang me a birthday song. They got the words wrong, laughing and singing their own tune, approximating what they thought “Happy Birthday” sounded like: “Happy Birthday, Ronnie. Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday!” I think their song went on for a good minute.

Nepal Market By Kogo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nepal Market
By Kogo [GFDL or CC BY 1.0, Image Source

I remember thinking that they got the words wrong and probably even said so aloud. But that was one of my first experiences with learning to develop an open mind, because I noticed right away how nice everybody was being to me. They didn’t speak much, if any, English, but they were trying to sing in my native language to make me feel special and welcome. What did it matter if they weren’t singing the song perfectly?

I still remember that experience, thirty years later. It’s funny how long true kindness stays with a person.

I try to keep the site apolitical. I don’t have any answers about how the world should be run. Even with the content on this blog, I offer tips and things that have worked for me, not absolutes or “rules.”

But I do feel compelled to speak up about the importance of diverse people from all over the world finding a common ground.

A lot of bad things have been happening in the world lately. So it’s vital to be reminded about the power of languages to unite people across cultures.

As language learners who have learned, to some degree, how to take advantage of language’s power and who are used to seeing the world through other people’s linguistic lenses, we are in a perfect position to promote:

  • Tolerance
  • Multiculturalism
  • Diversity
  • Respect for all
  • Human rights

Admittedly, by saying this on a language blog, I’m preaching to the choir. For most people–especially language learners–the notion of tolerance is not that radical. (It’s even championed by the United Nations.)

But this brings me to my next point…

Language learning is a gift you give others

Back when I lived in Germany, most of the neighborhood spoke English, but they were shy about their skills because they weren’t perfect. And I understand. I’m the same way. I still have problems opening up with people in a different language until I get a couple drinks in me.

It took me a while to pick up enough German even to survive. So in the beginning, a few neighbors had limited conversations with me and a few other neighbors politely avoided me. But one neighbor–Rolf–went out of his way to have conversations with me, even though he occasionally struggled for the right word. We went out and got beers a few times and barbecued together with our families. We became friends.

And if it weren’t for Rolf and his efforts, I would’ve been relatively isolated from my neighbors. Yes, many people in Europe speak English, but that doesn’t mean everyone is willing to speak it, especially in a social setting.

Rolf’s kindness had a huge impact on my experience in Germany and truthfully an impact on my life as well.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the language learning process. Language acquisition is slow. In the beginning, you get more things wrong than you do right. Sometimes it feels like your efforts aren’t appreciated, especially when a native speaker loses patience with you or makes fun of your accent.

I even got discouraged recently with some failures in my personal language projects.

But learning a new language is a gift. It’s a gift to you, since you get so many benefits out of it. But it’s also a gift you give to your future friends, to the community of speakers that you’re going out of your way to join.

Learning a new language doesn’t guarantee cultural insight, nor does it mean that you buy into all of a culture’s tics or flaws. It does mean, though, that you’re making an honest effort to understand.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this gift several times in my life, and trust me: It’s appreciated. In fact, one of the reasons I like learning languages so much is that I want an opportunity to pay the kindness back.

Just remember the people behind the words

I’m drawn to languages because I love languages themselves. I love words, and I love dissecting sentences, taking them apart and putting them back together.

But it’s easy to get so caught up in the language game that you forget about the people behind the words. If you hang out in language learning forums, you’d be excused for thinking that serious language learners are primarily motivated by the challenge, or the bragging rights, or the financial benefits.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m motivated by those same things.

But all of us–including me–need to be reminded that we’re doing something very human. And that our efforts serve a purpose. We are bridging the linguistic gap among different people, thereby dampening the flames of ignorance, hate, and bigotry, one person at a time.

So I humbly recommend that we let the spirit of linguistic generosity help guide our efforts and, if the opportunity arises, that we not be afraid to stumble through a birthday song to make someone feel a little less alone in the world.

  • http://y-knotblog.blogspot.com Liz Ozselcuk

    Just by having my Spanish book visible while studying in a IRS waiting room, I ended up having a great conversation with a guy from El Salvador who was there for much the same reason I was (if IRS and Social Security have different versions of your last name, even differing by the presence or absence of a hyphen, you are screwed when it comes to tax refunds. People with Latino names have a lot of problems with this). The conversation was in English, unfortunately, but it never would have happened if he hadn’t seen my book. I learned a lot of things from that conversation….about the hostility some English speaking Americans have for people who speak other languages in public places, about corruption in his home country and how the economy of El Salvador has been affected by economic refugees who come from further south and end up staying there. They end up bringing the price of labor down and those people who have remained in El Salvador and are partially dependent upon money sent down from relatives working in the US no longer want to work because the wages are so low that it’s far more expedient to survive on the payments from the US than it is to hold a job. All of this socially complex stuff I would not have known except for the presence of that Spanish book, which told him I had some sympathy for his language and culture. We were also able to admit that neither of our countries is perfect, that we are all just individuals trying to survive financially and socially. I love the chance conversations I have with strangers in waiting rooms…..the more languages I have connections to, the more such conversations I can have. :-)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That is awesome. Thank you for sharing that story. That’s a pretty good conversation starter! I might start carrying around a phrase book. 😉

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    You know what’s really inspirational? There are some Russian TV hosts who take time to learn Ukrainian to host Ukrainian TV shows. They show a lot of respect for the country where everyone can understand Russian and half of population (myself included) has it as their first language. It would be easy to become complacent and think “They already understand me and my country is bigger than theirs, so why put any effort?”
    But they learn to speak Ukrainian. Even if they probably read from their cards or teleprompter and don’t sound like natives, it’s still a heartwarming experience.

  • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

    So true! We must remember this when we’re striving to learn a new language.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! ¡Saludos!

  • Rachel

    What a moving, thought-provoking and inspiring post – thank you Ron. This is my first visit to your blog and having just read that, I know I’ll be visiting frequently from now on!