Where do I begin? I suppose I’ll begin with the present. After all, the present is where we all begin when we start studying a new language. ‘I am hungry.’ ‘My name is Roger.’ ‘I am from Idaho.’ ‘I believe in education.’ And I believe education starts with communication, with language, something we often overlook.
The first time I traveled to a foreign country I discovered the power of languages. I had already taken some Spanish in high school, as so many have, but I had yet to realize the potential of language, had yet to be inspired by language. It wasn’t until I found myself completely speechless and utterly helpless in another country that I realized the incredible importance of a tool I had been taking for granted all my life: the ability to communicate. The experience was sublime. Since then, I‘ve never looked back. Eight time zones away, living a foreign lifestyle and surrounded by a language I didn’t speak, I discovered something about myself. I discovered an intense passion for languages. Ironically enough, chasing it has led me all the way back home to Idaho.
Studying a language is not easy. In fact, learning another language is one of the most challenging tasks one can take on. For that very reason, the rewards are out of this world. The mental exercise of dissecting what sounds like noise, and turning it into a string of words, parts of speech, actions, objects, dreams, and ideas is truly tiring. The brain is constantly working overtime to conjure up the simplest concepts, such as a coffee order. What would normally roll off of your tongue without even a thought suddenly turns into a monster of nouns, conjugation, negation, and prepositions, when all you really want is that familiar, steaming, animating cup of coffee. Needless to say, after operating in a foreign language for any period of time, the ability to communicate in our own language takes on a new level of appreciation and ease.
But studying a foreign language is much more than ordering a cup of coffee, much deeper than a superficial conversation in a foreign tongue. Beyond the mental exercises of studying a foreign language, we also gain a new and different perspective on the world, something invaluable in today’s society. Through studying a foreign language, we learn about culture. We learn how others introduce themselves, how they describe themselves, how they express themselves. We learn about who they are, their culture, their identity. And identity is the foundation on which we operate. Recognizing one’s culture and identity is the key to building relationships. And there is no better way to study a culture than by studying its language.
However, the trail of discovery when studying a foreign language does not end on the other side of the world. Surprisingly enough, it ends with us. The agony of memorizing vocabulary and verb tables, suffering the embarrassment of malapropisms, feeling lost in translation, and tripping over our own tongue has an unexpected side effect: it teaches us about ourselves. Imagine for a second what it would be like to start from the beginning again, to have the vocabulary of a four-year-old. Imagine for a second if the only thing you could say had to be in the present tense. What would you say to someone you didn’t know?
Immersing ourselves in a new language and culture puts us all back at the beginning again. We rediscover what is important to us, our values. We are suddenly stripped of the comfort of our mother tongue, our own culture, and are left standing with what remains. And we are suddenly faced with what used to be such a simple question, three simple words in the present tense: “Who are you?”