As a teenager, I used to absolutely hate learning new languages. I am pretty sure my mother was devastated when I rebelled and denied to attend my English lessons when I was 14 years old. However, I can now speak 5 different languages (🇬🇷,🏴,🇮🇹,🏴,🇪🇸), and I am on my way to learning a 6th (🇫🇷). When I was younger, I didn’t really appreciate or understood the value of being able to speak multiple languages; it’s only later on that I realised that languages are so much more than just another means to communicate. I decided to write this post to tell you about my experience in learning different languages and how it changed my view of the world.
Language was a barrier
I grew up in one of the most popular/touristy Greek islands; Corfu. And because of our family business (which involves hotels and apartments), I grew up spending my summers surrounded by visitors. My friends were from all over the world. However, there was one problem. As I was pretty young, I couldn’t really talk to them. My mum (who speaks more than 6 languages) was always my personal translator. As the years went by, my friends kept returning, and so language really became a problem.
Although I had English lessons from a pretty young age, I hadn’t learnt enough. I could not engage in conversations, discuss what games to play, or even arrange what time to go for a swim. I felt limited. Not being able to speak to my friends was a great obstacle for me. It was blocking me from developing friendships and interacting with different people! And this was the biggest reason that made me want to learn Italian and improve my English.
The schooling system didn’t work
Every autumn, I would find myself back in the English school and Italian private lessons and my motivation would immediately disappear. I found the process of learning so boring that it was impossible for me to learn anything.
Everytime I would just come up with different ways to skip the English class. I would pretend that I was dying from a massive headache, beg my mother to call and cancel my lesson, or I would even dance in my living room pretending to do an ancient ritual hoping that my Italian teacher wouldn’t show up for the lesson (mi dispiace molto Eduard haha)!
The schooling system – or just the teachers I had at the time – made the extraordinary process of learning a language so boring, stressful, and even a torturous experience for me. I didn’t want anything to do with English or Italian lessons. I had to just quit.
How I learnt
Eventually, I started travelling to Italy. And during my travels I was brave enough to use the words I knew to interact with the locals. If I didn’t know the word I needed, I described it! I asked! I found a way to get it! I was finally able to practise my broken Italian with my childhood (Italian) friend, Giulia, who then became one of my best friends! We started emailing regularly, calling each other, sharing Italian songs… And things started to click. Putting sentences together became easier. And this was also the case for English.
Without realising it, I was speaking three different languages almost every day. Time flew by, and after a few months I was able to communicate almost fluently in both English and Italian. I understood the language and its structure as I never had in the classroom before!
The more languages you know, the easier you learn
Having been in Wales for almost 8 years, I recently felt it was time to learn the language. I am not sure why I didn’t think of doing so sooner, maybe because I hadn’t met many people that actually speak Welsh. Anyway, for the past 7 months I have been speaking Welsh almost every day with my best friend. Surprisingly enough, I seem to have picked up the language really fast only by speaking and listening.
Thinking about it, I think that having learnt Italian and English this way has significantly helped me with learning Welsh. I noticed that many Welsh words are Latin based, and because of Italian, I can gather what they mean and I can easily remember them.
The language mobile apps, such as Babbel and Duolingo, are also great and have helped with revising/learning new words!
Language is culture and culture is language
Apart from making my life easier when I travel, I also realised that languages are not just a way of communication. They are intertwined with history, culture..human evolution! When you learn another language, it means that you are also interacting with the culture that speaks the language. You can’t understand one’s culture without accessing their mother tongue directly.
In fact, there are a few studies that have researched the correlation of language and culture. One of them examined people that were bilingual in English and Japanese. They asked the candidates to finish the sentence; ‘If my wishes conflicted with those of my family…’. When asked the question in English, people responded the equivalent to ‘I would do what I want.’ However, when asked in Japanese, they answered, ‘it would be a source of shame.’
These answers reflect the cultures of the countries the languages come from. In English speaking countries, it’s more acceptable to follow your own dreams and wishes, even if your family don’t approve. In Japanese society, your family holds a much more important role in your life. To disappoint them would be a terrible thing to do.
Languages shape the way we think
If you really think about it, people literally construct their thoughts differently in various languages. So, when you switch from one language to another, in a sense, you are learning a new way of thinking. And of course, I didn’t just come up with this idea.
Researchers at Stanford University and at MIT have collected and analysed linguistic data from many languages around the world. They demonstrated that people who speak different languages, think about space, time, colours, and objects in a different way. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., “That was a short talk,” “The meeting didn’t take long”), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on words like “much” “big”, and “little” rather than “short” and “long”.
Most importantly, they showed that one of the most important things that can can affect our thoughts is the use of gender. In some languages, like Greek or Italian, all nouns are subject to gender. A chair (η καρέκλα) in Greek is female and a backpack (lo zaino) in Italian is a male!
Teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with Greek and Spanish speakers. Apparently, even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an
effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.
How my view of the world changed
Reflecting on the past few years, I can personally agree with all the above. The ability of speaking different languages has not only made my travels easier, but it has shaped the way I think and has also given me access to unique and cool things in the world! I can appreciate and connect with different cultures, music, and art, that otherwise I would not be able to understand.
It is because of Italian that I learnt more about Italian history, traditions, and temperament. My travels to Spain and the use of language (even if it is the one I speak the least) made me learn about the language origins, the different dialects, and history. English opened up the door to so many different countries around the world, but also science and books! It has also taught me a more simple way of thinking. The fact that Greek is my mother language has significantly helped me learn the others, as the majority of the words originate from Greek ones – do not make me prove that! Finally, only recently when I started learning Welsh, I started noticing the differences between the English and Welsh culture; I learnt about local myths and dove into celtic culture! Which is in fact extremely interesting!
Different language, different behaviour
Another thing that I have noticed is that when I speak different languages, my behaviour might change to adapt to the specific culture. For instance, when I speak Greek I tend to be very forward with people. Though when I speak English I tend to be more polite. When I speak Italian, I sound more passionate about the things I am talking about and I definitely use my hands to express what I think. The ability to change between so many different modes feels like a super power.
Having learnt so many languages has definitely changed me as a person. It feels like each one has a part of me. And instead of being just Greek, I feel that a part of me is Greek…another is Italian, another is English, another is Welsh, another is Spanish, and maybe another one will be French. It makes me feel like a citizen of the world.
Therefore, I urge you to try and learn a new language. Find a place that you will fall in love with, interact with its people, and culture, and don’t be afraid to speak. It is the only way you will learn. And once you do so, you will never be the same again!
Until next time…
P.S. If you enjoy photography, check out my previous blog post here!