Learning a new language is a humbling process, because it basically means accepting that every word you know is wrong. The elaborate lexicon you’ve developed over the years suddenly becomes useless: the movie quotes you know, your street slang, old-fashioned words you ironically use—everything disappears in a smoking poof, leaving you publicly naked.
That’s because language is a comfy suit you have tailored to your size; a patchwork of all the environments you have been exposed to. You don’t understand how much of your identity is tied up in your language until you lose it.
I recently discovered this when I moved from Spain to New York three years ago, and had to begin again from scratch. Without language, you become a smiling machine: You smile when you understand something, but you also smile when you don’t understand a damn thing. In my case, took months to redevelop a spoken humor that would make others (not only myself) laugh.
Why go through such hell? It looks good in your resume, it allows you to travel abroad with more confidence, and it gives you common ground with that exotic foreigner on the other side of the bar. But it also widens your perspective, and by way of that, your creative resources.
Would you see a dolphin in the same way if you knew that the Basque word for it, “izurde”, is the contraction of “sea-pig”? Every language provides a unique point of view of the world. Where you see chipmunks or squirrels, I only see ardillas—but I differentiate between lechuzas (white owls) and buhos (brown owls). Would you see a dolphin in the same way if you knew that the Basque word for it, izurde, is the contraction of sea-pig? You could laugh and consider it stupid—or you could notice how both animals are mammals, share a prominent snout, and have similar squeals. See it now?
Or examine the case of rainbow, which is arcoiris in my native language. In English, it’s a bow made of rain, while in Spanish it’s an arch (arco) made of the spectrum of light (iris). But you need rain and light to make a rainbow. Each language saw the same phenomenon, but only 50% of each made it to their word.
But learning a language isn’t just about discovering words: It’s about discovering the environment in which they were born. Some of your discoveries might include:
- Necessity: Spanish took iceberg directly from English, because it didn’t have any necessity to generate such a word in the southern Europe. English, on its side, took it from the Dutch word ijsberg, which means ice mountain.
- Social structures: Compare nobility rooted in noble and villainy rooted in ville, which is a farm from the Middle Ages.
- Myths: The days of the week in English make references to the sun and moon, the Roman god Saturn, and also the Norwegian gods Tig, Woden, and Frige.
- History: The term salary allegedly comes from when work used to be paid with salt, which is sal in Latin.
- Invasions: Freckle, awe, skull, rotten, knife, skirt, and slaughter are some of the words vikings introduced to English.
- Trends: The s in island is silent because when Latin was the highbrow language in the Middle Ages and ile didn’t cut the mustard, an s was added to make it more similar to the Latin insula.
- and Obsessions: Seriously, native English speakers, what is going on with cheese? Cheesy, cut the cheese, the big cheese, cheesed off, as different as chalk and cheese, and you even say cheese! when you take a photo…
In the process of learning another language, you will discover more about your own. I learned about the origin of the Spanish word malabares (plural of malabar) when I was trying to remember the English word juggler. It came from the Indian region of Malabar, where British and Portuguese merchants discovered natives were masters at juggling. The British kept using the word rooted in the medieval French joggler, and the Portuguese and Spaniards began using malabar. They named the exercise after a region I’d never heard about, but so often pronounced. Would I have ever discovered its history if not for my recent habit of researching words?
Learning a new language can be embarrassing, but you should push through the awkward phase. As a survivor of the shipwreck of your vocabulary, you keep afloat with the few things you can lug around. Here is some advice for when learning a language—or any other creative activity, for that matter.
- Imperfection is better than nothing. People who speak poorly will go further than ones who take large pauses while trying to find the perfect word or are too embarrassed to talk at all. Your listener can forgive some mistakes, but they won’t forgive boredom.
- MacGyver up. If you only have a few words handy, combine them to express more complicated ideas. Sometimes it won’t work, but when it does, it tickles people’s minds in ways preexisting words can’t. Shakespeare himself was the first one to use elbow as a verb, and I just conjugated a 1980s TV show at the beginning of this paragraph!
- Divide and conquer. If you can’t think of a word, divide the concept into parts and describe it by surrounding it. For a long time I called squirrels rats-with-fancy-tails because I couldn’t pronounce it correctly. (Eventually I worked out the pronunciation trick, for me, was to say square-rolls.)
- Become an archaeologist. If you find an unknown word, research it. Work out its etymology, synonyms and antonyms. You can even visit the tombs of your first language and see if, as Indiana Jones did with the golden idol, your native word can fill the gap.
But you don’t even necessarily need to learn a foreign language to experiment with these creative side effects: Just try to see your native language with new eyes. Be curioser and curioser, as Lewis Carroll might say. Use a few words in strange, new ways, and perceive the new realities that you are able to express.
The other day I discovered you can use bananas for crazy. Isn’t that… nuts?
Squirrels think so.