Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Amazing Worlds You Discover When You Learn a New Language

Our Worldview

Our worldview is shaped by many things: our religion, our parents, our age, the area where we grew up, and a host of others.  Our worldview is also always changing, usually expanding.  For example, if your mother cooked stovetop macaroni and cheese when you were growing up, you probably thought the baked kind was some weird alien substance the first time you saw it.  But of course those who grow up eating baked macaroni and cheese think the stovetop variety is not "real macaroni and cheese."  That is part of our worldview.  We grow up eating mama's cooking (or the lack thereof) and when we first move out into the world and sample other flavors, they are strange to us.  Some we find exotic, others we find just plain disgusting.  And then we grow and adapt and our worldview changes.

Our Awareness of Worldviews

We learn that other worldviews exist at a very early age.  Maybe it was the time the kid in your kindergarten class said he had to "go pee", while you were always required to say "potty" because "pee" was not a very nice word.  Maybe it was the time someone in your fourth grade class said they were vegetarian, and you had never even heard that word before.  Whatever the catalyst, at some point you became aware that not everyone saw the world in exactly the same way you did.  When confronted with this you had two choices: stand firm on what you'd always known, or change your worldview.  That is not always an easy decision, but it's one we're required to make practically from the moment we arrive on the earth.

Our Blind Spot

So you've long been aware that people have a different view of God than you do, or they have different attitudes about diet and exercise.  Some people dress differently than you.  Some have cleaner houses.  Some care more about money than you do.  Others care less.  These are things you see every time you walk out of your house, or even just turn on the television.  But we seldom think about the ways in which language shapes our worldview.  I'm sure this is true for everyone, no matter their native language, but I think it's particularly true for English speakers because there are so many of us.  When we look out across the world we see the United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.  We see all of these cultures that we in some ways consider foreign, but at the same time we see cultures tied together by a common tongue.  We come to assume that everyone, literally everyone, studies Shakespeare in high school.  Everyone is familiar with Charles Dickens.  Everyone can name at least one book by Stephen King.  We don't even think of this as a worldview.  We just think of it as The World.  But we think of it that way because our worldview has been so shaped by the language we speak that it becomes our entire world.

Discovering New Worlds

When I first started out on my journey to become bilingual, this idea of a worldview shaped by language was one of the most amazing discoveries I made.  After only a few months of learning Spanish I became aware of authors and books and movies and actors and singers who were as well-known in the Spanish speaking world as Shakespeare and Dickens and King were in the English-speaking world.  Some I had heard of before, but others were completely new to me.  It was like finding another world.  Only it wasn't a new world.  It had always been there.  It had existed right beside my own for as long as my own world had been around, but I had never seen it because I had never bothered to look.

I'm tempted to compare learning Spanish to opening a door to this new world, but that wouldn't adequately describe the experience, because if we're aware that there's a door, then we're naturally aware that there is something behind it.  For me it was more like opening what I thought was a closet only to find another entire house when I stepped through.  Some things were familiar, but some things were completely new.  I had heard of Don Quixote, but now I also knew about Doña Barbara.  I was familiar with Selena (Quintanilla, not Gomez), but suddenly found myself preferring to listen to Juanes.  I had seen movies with Javier Bardem, but now fell completely in love with Eduardo Noriega.  I read Como agua para chocolate.  I stood up and cheered when Frijolito's parents finally got together.  And I rooted for Gael Garcia Bernal at the Golden Globes this year.

Paying it Forward

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people complain about "having to" learn a new language.  Or ask why they need to learn it if they never plan to travel to other countries.  I have an answer for that question now.  You should learn a new language because it's one of the most amazing journeys you will ever take.  You will learn so much more than just grammar and vocabulary, and your life will be forever changed by the experience.

If you have made your own amazing discoveries about the joys of becoming bilingual, I would love for you to leave me a comment.

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