What usually is every high school kid’s worst nightmare turned out to be something revolutionary for me.
Yeah, I know. It sounds nerdy. I can just imagine judging a headline like “3 Ways Applied Statistics Changed Me.”
But, hear me out.
When I started to learn Spanish, it really rocked my world.
This article isn’t just about the ways that knowing a little bit of Spanish changed my life, e.g. giving me business opportunities, allowing me to travel and communicate, etc.
I’m going to write about how learning a second language actually changed me.
And hopefully how it might change (or have changed) you too.
#1 It taught me that people view the world completely differently than I do… literally.
I remember the moment so well.
Before the days of Google translate, I bought a Spanish-English dictionary, eager to learn what these Spanish speakers call everyday, common things.
Dog = Perro, Cat = Gato, Tree = Árbol, and the list went on.
However, one thing left me baffled.
I saw that Spanish speakers have a different name for our planet, Earth. It was “Tierra.”
This blew my little 16 year old mind. I could imagine a dog being called something different, even a plant. But something as big as the Earth? That was the name of the place I lived. The place where every person, every dog, every plant, every thing that I had ever experienced existed.
The fact that people had a different name for this shared, common space in which we all inhabit was absolutely mind-blowing to me. It disoriented my sense of location in existence.
It made me realize that different people don’t just see day to day things differently. The way that they see the world (or the Earth, in my case) is completely different than the way that I do.
#2 It made me realize the reality of diversity.
There’s another moment I’ll never forget in Spanish class.
The first day of class, our teacher asked us, “So, what does a Spanish speaker look like?” The responses were what you would expect from 10th graders.
“They’re brown!” “They’re short!” “They have black hair and dark eyes!”
We assumed that every Spanish speaker looked like the server from the Mexican restaurant down the road.
One day, we were watching the cheesy instructional videos that every beginning learner has to watch. We had José and Juanita from Mexico, Gabriel and María from Peru, and so on. They would teach us about the culture of their own country.
However, then we got to Spain. On the screen, I saw two white people speaking in perfect Spanish. It took everyone off guard.
For some reason, even though I realized that Spain was in Europe and that people obviously spoke Spanish in Spain, it never occurred to me that they were mostly white in Spain—in fact, in never occurred to me that white people spoke Spanish in general!
We also saw a video from people in the Dominican Republic. Down there, black people also spoke Spanish! I couldn’t believe it.
When you’re exposed to a language, you are also exposed to the diverse types of people that speak it. Not all people who speak French are white Frenchmen, nor are all people who speak Arabic brown Middle Easterners.
This exposure to diversity left a lasting impact. It taught me not to make judgments about people just because of a certain trait that they may have, like a language.
#3 It made me appreciate culture that wasn’t white, Western, and English speaking.
One day, I was looking our Spanish textbook.
I noticed a poem written by Pablo Neruda called Soneto XVII.
As I read it, I was overwhelmed with how beautiful it was.
To this day, it’s my favorite poem of all time. I read the Spanish version and, even though I didn’t know much Spanish at the time, I could sense that it was far more beautiful in its original language than it was in its English translation.
This didn’t come from Shakespeare. It came from a brown, Spanish speaking man from Chile.
I began to discover that there was Spanish music that wasn’t mariachi (no offense to mariachi). There were Spanish television shows that weren’t telenovelas (again… no offense). There were Spanish movies other than the Three Amigos (okay… maybe those guys should take offense… joking!).
I had understood that culture and art existed outside of the U.S. before, but I had never realized its preciousness and beauty until I could appreciate it firsthand.
Today, even though still only can speak English and Spanish, I can appreciate art and culture from cultures that speak other languages, simply because learning a language opened me up to the possibility to do so.
So, I urge you to learn a language. It’s not too late.
And yes, the possibilities that it opens up for you are great as well.
But there’s also the chance to be (trans)formed in the process of learning the language.
It won’t leave you the same person as you were before.
And, hopefully, that’ll be a good thing. I know it was for me.