Polyglots and language study fans know this for sure: there are more benefits to knowing foreign languages than just the words you learn. What exactly are multilingual people so good at? How can you get there as you learn your language?
1. Ready to be wrong
A TED talk that by now must have been seen by the whole Internet – Sir Ken Robinson’s discussion of schools and creativity – has many hidden gems behind its obvious message. One of the sentences which stuck with me was that creative children are “prepared to be wrong.” This, by the way, was what schools and testing try to drum out of learners.
Future polyglots walk through a mistake-laden area every day. They’re corrected by their teacher. The tests they take show them what went wrong. Their conversation partners give them hints. And a successful language learner will take this all on board – expecting more correction, more mistakes, more chances to learn.
Compare this with a guy in your office who always “got it right” as a kid, and is terrified of making a mistake in his job now – and you’ll get two different kinds of approaches to reality. I know which one I’d prefer.
2. Good with ambiguity
These five skills will be connected in a way. Here’s where ambiguity links to readiness for mistakes: because you’re ready to be wrong, you’re also ready to accept that there’s more than one correct answer. Or that there are shades between “right” and “wrong” – things people write but rarely say, or phrases which a language used 30 years ago but not any more.
This extends to the whole language someone is learning. The student quickly realizes that one word never has just one meaning – and that some words will never have just one translation into their native tongue. And the wonderful moment comes when they begin to feel okay with it.
Again, this is such a great skill to have – the opposite would be someone who insists on there being just one right solution, just one “normal” perspective.
What’s another way of saying this? Where did that slogan come from? Is there another accent similar to the one I’m using?
Language learning is a perfect pastime for those who are always hungry for more. Quite simply, there is always more. Those who learn languages for a bit longer will quickly go beyond the minimum – beyond the 1500 words and phrases they need just to get by – and start exploring the “extra bits.”
This is something which makes lives interesting. Susan Sontag wrote this best: Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.
4. Making themselves understood
This skill is far less intimate, far more obvious at first sight. Language learners are exposed, at a very early stage, to situations which make them try really hard to be understood. The words are just not enough! You need to use mime, definitions, sounds, questions – a range of communication strategies – to “stitch together” your languages and prevent communication breakdown.
In time, your foreign language skills are good enough. But the strategies, and the experience of using them, are vital. Even in your own language, you become aware of losing someone’s attention. Even in simple conversations, you keep thinking of a better way to say something – of a clarification question you could ask. This is a great skill to have, and the opposite would be Fight Club’s famous “waiting for their turn to speak.”
5. Power learners
I consider this to be a mixture of skills. Every language learner I saw was a potential superhero.
They made space for another world inside their heads. They managed – even at an advanced age, sometimes – to shift their system of words and meanings, make it move around and dance with another system of different words and sorta-different meanings. They spent hours, each week, learning a whole new culture, with new stories and new ways of referring to something that felt old and familiar to 90% of others.
From a more mundane perspective, these learners became familiar with how they learn best. They found out how to cope with stress, and how to get motivated. They figured out what doesn’t work for them, and what they don’t like doing. Finally – they managed teamwork, not in one language but two, not in one country but in many places.
Language learners will be more prepared for anything life throws at them.
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