Why You Should Learn a New Language
by Nikki Camera
One of the most important aspects of any culture is its language. Language is crucial to a country’s music, art, politics, and more. Language typically incites a sense a pride in people, and many nations are protective of their language, or even their dialect of an already existing language. For example, most Spanish-speaking countries have their own dialect, and the people in these countries are very proud of it. These accents are so different that one with a sharp ear for Spanish could easily differentiate the nationalities of the speakers. This is also common with French-speaking and English-speaking countries. Typically, countries get their languages from imperial powers like France, England, Spain, and Portugal. This makes dialects important to each country’s culture, as a dialect allows people to cultivate their own identity separate from their colonial powers. For this reason and many others, understanding a culture’s language is crucial to understanding the culture itself.
In my own experience, learning and becoming fluent in Spanish was a defining part of my life. I chose Spanish because it is a language that opens up so many countries to you in Latin America, and of course, Spain. I gained fluency in Spanish after studying abroad recently in Buenos Aires, Argentina during the Fall semester of 2015. Yet, I could also say I’m fluent in Castellano, which is what Argentines proudly call their dialect of Spanish. Castellano is different from other dialects in its pronunciation, vocabulary, and sayings. I can recognize an Argentine by the way they pronounce the double L in Spanish and the Y, which sounds more like an English “J” in Castellano. Many of the nuances of Castellano were created by Argentina’s large amount of immigrants, mostly European. Castellano is also influenced heavily by Italian with some of the words Argentines use. As you can see, understanding Argentina’s language is vital for an understanding of the country’s history. This is the case for any country - if you plan on studying abroad, traveling, and/or incorporating international studies into your education, it is necessary to learn new languages. There are nuances in every language that, frequently, cannot be understood through a simple translation.
If you want to learn a new language, but have no idea where to start, don’t panic - that’s normal. I studied Spanish in high school, as many people have, but hardly retained any of it and only practiced sporadically throughout the year. It was not until I decided to study abroad did I take learning Spanish seriously. I wanted to make sure I could at least ask basic questions and get around the city without difficulty. I practiced for several weeks before I left, but nothing could’ve improved my Spanish as much as living in a Spanish-speaking country could. Studying abroad and gaining confidence in a new language even inspired me to change my major from English to Comparative Literature so I could study texts originally in Spanish and other languages. If you have the opportunity to study abroad in a country that does not speak your first language, take it! If you’ve already studied the language for some time and want to reach semi- or full fluency, immersing yourself into the language will absolutely get you there.
Just as important as travel and immersion is passion for a language. Learning a new language is a long, difficult, and rewarding road that you can only complete with a genuine desire to learn that language. For me, I chose Spanish for many reasons. I wanted to, so to speak, get the best bang for my buck learning a language. I mentioned before how many countries you can speak in with Spanish, and I also wanted to honor my Mexican heritage, even if I’m only a quarter. My grandmother’s first language was Spanish, and I wanted to be able to speak to her in a language she is incredibly proud of knowing. I’ve also always had a fascination with Latin America, and I knew I couldn’t truly understand the region without learning one of its most prominent languages. I’m also starting to learn French and Italian with greater ease than I would have had without a basis in Spanish.
Ultimately, when you choose a language, be excited about it. Learn of language of a place you want to visit and/or study; learn a language from your heritage—whatever inspires you. Don’t just choose a language based on what you were forced to take in high school or college just to fill out a language requirement, choose it based on which place and culture you truly want to understand. A lack of interest results in hundreds of thousands of high school students coming out of four years of studying a language without the ability to sustain a basic conversation.
To get started, do some research on a language and the countries it is spoken in. Take a closer look at your ethnic background. Research a language you might already be learning but aren’t exactly excited by—you might find some inspiration to try harder, which is what happened to me. Consider studying abroad, create a Duolingo account, find some conversation circles in your city—whatever works for you! It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Te juro. Vale la pena.