Bilingualism is the Way to Go

Now that I’m here in Mexico and pretty well settled, I’m starting to realise that what everybody says is true – the best way to learn a language is to just go out there and immerse yourself; you’ll pick it up.  I’ve been here for two weeks already (time is flying!) and I’ve noticed that it’s starting to feel natural to speak Spanish – even with my English-speaking housemates, when we open our mouths, Spanish comes out.  Johannes, who a week ago didn’t speak much Spanish at all, is now getting along fine, understanding everything.

Well, it’s hard to understand everything.  I know that the first few weeks of Uni are going to be challenging, but I’m confident that it will get much easier once I get used to the pace.  I actually think humans have a natural ability to learn languages, even as we get older.  There are countless anecdotes of people moving to a foreign country with no knowledge of the language at all, and in next to no time, they find themseleves fluent.

Anyway, since it’s the main reason I’m here, I thought I’d finally write down what many people I know are probably sick of hearing me prattle on about.  Everyone should learn a second language.  Everyone.  Especially English speakers.

Yeah, I said it.  English speakers need to get their act together and stop assuming it’s okay to go abroad and expect everyone to speak English.  I know it’s a sad reality that many, many foreign people can and do accommodate for our laziness, but the way I see it, just because they can doesn’t mean that they should have to.  It’s just disrespectful.  Obviously it’s not possible to learn every word of the language of every country you might ever visit, but even just knowing basic ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ is enough to show that you respect other people’s right to speak and hear their own language in their own country.

You won’t see it anywhere else – only in an English-speaking country will people get annoyed if someone doesn’t speak English, and only an English-speaker will be equally annoyed if, on their holidays, the taxi driver doesn’t understand where they want to go.  Only English-speakers seem to feel entitled to being understood without having to put in any effort.  In other European countries, it’s normal for even children to speak two or three languages.  In the UK, it’s not even really considered a good thing – the response tends to be ‘why?’ Why would you bother when everyone speaks English?

And if they don’t? ‘Well, they should!’

 Just say no to cat photos. 

No.  They shouldn’t.

Okay, rant over.  I hope I’ve portrayed my absolute disdain for people with this attitude.

If ‘to not be ignorant, lazy and selfish’ isn’t a good enough reason to learn a second, third or fourth language, here are a  few other things to consider about why multilingualism is such a GOOD thing:

  1. Travel: Not being limited to touristy areas, opening your mind to hidden away places where you’ll find the real culture and see how real people actually live.  Imagine how much you can learn from that.
  2. Not being afraid to travel: When you speak the same language, people become a lot less scary.  It’s easier to see people as people, just like you, not a different species with wildly different ideas that should be feared.
  3. Friendship and communication: What in the world is more important than being able to talk to people?  Learning another language improves your grasp of your own and your ability to communicate effectively.
  4. Employment: Despite the ‘Everyone speaks English’ theory, having more than one language allows you not only to work in another country but offers you more opportunities in your own.
  5. Art, Music, Literature, Food, Fashion etc.: Learn what some of the greatest cultural movements in the world were/are really all about.
  6. It’s good for your brain: A 2010 study showed better cognitive abilities in elderly people who had learned a second language.  Another study in 2004 showed bilingual children were able to perform tasks faster than their monolingual counterparts.  Several studies suggest language learning can prevent/delay the onset of Dementia.
  7. It’s good for your soul:

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


Sail Away From the Safe Harbour

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

Tomorrow I’m leaving Cardiff and heading back up North for two months before starting a whole new life – my third year abroad.  And it really will be a whole new life – in a different continent, different language and different culture.

Now that the stressful bit – all the organisation that needed to be done at this end – is over, I can’t wait to go!  I just have a feeling that Mexico will have something to teach me that I can’t learn anywhere else.  I’m still trying to find a new way of thinking, and I hope that I will find it there.

A lot of people told me that I was crazy to go to such a ‘dangerous place’; a lot of people warned me that I would get kidnapped or murdered or forced to join a cartel amongst other horrific things.  At first I worried about those things too, but when I actually stopped to think about it I realised that Mexico is a big country.  So big, in fact, that I probably won’t get to see all of it in the space of a year, as much as I want to.  Yes, it has its problems, but don’t we all?  There are problem areas, but the real problem is that people are too afraid of those relatively small areas to go anywhere near the rest of such a beautiful country.  One of my lecturers here in Cardiff is from Mexico City, and the other day she told me, ‘there are drugs, but that’s only up in the North, and you wouldn’t want to go there, anyway, because it’s mostly desert.’  Yet people jump to the conclusion that it’s the same all over Mexico, and the media image doesn’t exactly help.

So, no, I’m not scared.  Well, no more than I would be if I were going to Spain or even to London.  I’m not scared of the things that could happen in any city and are no more likely to happen in Mexico, and I’m certainly not going to let that fear stop me from taking a once in a lifetime opportunity which may well end up being the best year of my life.  The 40-something students on my course all have to go somewhere, so why not go all out and do something completely different?  I feel extremely lucky to have had it offered to me and I know that I will appreciate it so much more and learn so much more than if I had chosen a ‘safer’ option, and when I come home I will be able to understand the things that really matter in life.

The mayan ruins of Tonina in Chiapas, Mexico -- by davecurry8

Tortiando - to have a greater appreciation of the differences between cultures, we should all take the opportunity to live as others live.

Popocatepetl, Mexico