Love Letter 1: An ode to foreign languages

Despite the worldwide renown we Americans have for being knowledgeable of foreign cultures, it might surprise you to discover that most of us do not speak a foreign language. Sure, a number of us can utter a few phrases in Canadiench or Mexicanese, but most of us are pretty much stuck with needing to communicate in just plain ol’ American. This is a shame because speaking and learning a foreign language is a heck of lot of fun.

How do I love thee, foreign languages? Let me count the ways. 

Foreign languages expand your emotional lexicon

To be fair, it can feel constricting at times to speak in a language that is not your mother tongue. Within the comforting confines of your own kitchen, you are a master chef – now, in a rented AirBnB, you are forced to make do with a pantry stocked only with salt and pepper. As you grasp unsuccessfully for the words to capture how you’re feeling, it can feel like you are adrift at sea. Without access to your full vocabulary, it is often difficult to be profound or humorous in the way that you are typically accustomed. To the extent that your sense of self is derived from your ability to access these words, all of this can be exceedingly frustrating and leave you feeling like you’re unable to be you.

Despite these restraints, I nevertheless find something liberating about speaking in a foreign language. Like foreign spices that you can’t find down at your local supermarket, every foreign language offers a series of words or expressions that simply don’t exist in one’s native tongue. Learning and understanding how they are used can expand the ability to express oneself, like adding instruments to an orchestra.

A famous example of this is the adjective gemütlich in German (noun: Gemütlichkeit). In English, we simply don’t have a proper equivalent. While it is often translated as “cozy”, its meaning conveys more than this. An environment that is described as gemütlich is one that is comforting, warm and secure – an almost romantic feeling that has understandably taken on great importance within a culture shaped by its exposure to harsh, cold and gray winters. Coziness, to be sure, is an element of Gemütlichkeit, but it is only a part of the full spectrum of emotions that it invokes. Imagine escaping from a cold January evening and finding yourself in a warm apartment filled with comfortable furniture and personalized decor: bookshelves, plants, personal photographs, and a mishmash of aging, sentimental keepsakes. A warm glass of glühwein rests in your hand – the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet filling the air, while soft yellow light emanates from nearby candles and loosely hung Christmas tree lights. This a place that is more than just the sum of its parts – a personal, human touch has been breathed into it and you feel safely and securely at home. No, “cozy” alone does not quite capture it. It’s more than that: hier ist echt gemütlich!

Foreign words are a treat to say

Every foreign language possesses words or phrases that hit your tongue like some exciting new flavor that is absent in your local cuisine. Like food, your enjoyment of each language will come down to personal preference. I, for instance, tend to find almost everything in Italian to be a pleasure . Something as simple as “cosa consiglia?”, spoken to a server, can bring me immense joy (even if I have no idea what he or she is saying in response). Brazilian Portuguese, as well, is filled with fantastic phrases. The words isso or nossa, for example, hold a special place in my heart and I adore the drawn out way that they are pronounced in the Carioca accent.1 With only two syllables, one can express a great deal – each beautifully undulating like waves against the white sands of Ipanema. 

Foreign languages can expand your mind

Foreign languages can also challenge your pre-existing views of the world and leave you contemplating whether some of your beliefs are little more than culturally imposed constructs devoid of universality. In such instances, a foreign language can liberate your mind and stimulate personal growth. 

As an example, I am reminded of my experience learning Chinese in Beijing. In my initial exposure to the language, I recall having my mind blown away by the manner in which it relates certain elements of time and space. To show you what I mean, let me introduce you to four basic terms:  

  • 前 (qian): front
  • 后 (hou): back
  • 上 (shang): above 
  • 下 (xia): below 

Each of these follows standard Western conventions when used to describe physical location. For example, let’s imagine that you are in a multi-level shopping mall and giving someone directions to a certain store. If you wanted to tell her that the store is located in front of where you are presently located, you’d use 前 (qian). Similarly, if you wanted to tell her that the store is located on the floor below you, you’d use 下 (xia). 

While this is particularly straightforward, things become more interesting when we refer to location in time rather than space. For instance, there are words in Chinese that denote “two days ago” and “two days from now”. In both cases, the word for day (天, tian) is combined with either the word for “front” (前) or “back” (后). Contrary to what we’d expect, “two days from now” is 后天 (literally: “back day”), while “two days ago” is 前天 (literally: “front day”). Similarly, Chinese adds the words for “above” (上) and “below” (下) to the word for “week” (星期, xingqi) to inform the listener of whether reference is being made to “next week” or “last week”. As you might guess, next week is 下个星期 (literally: “below week”) while “last week” is 上个星期 (literally: “above week”). 

Think about this for a second. While Chinese conceives of movement in time, it does so in a way that is completely contradictory to that found in the West. The future moves downwards and backwards while the past resides above and in front of us.2 When I first learned this, my head nearly exploded and I felt doubly confused to find that none of my foreign friends in China seemed to have given it much thought. What had initially struck me as absurd, eventually led to contemplation of my own preconceived ideas. As I dwelled on it, I realized that I really couldn’t offer a meaningful argument as to why time needed to move forwards or upwards or why an alternative conception couldn’t be true. Chinese literally challenges our own conception of time and space. If you can’t find that dope, then I’m afraid there isn’t much I can do for you (没办法 as the Chinese would say).3

Foreign languages can allow you to access parts of yourself that might be constrained in your mother tongue

While these are some of the reasons for why I love foreign languages, my main desire in this love letter is to sing the praises of another aspect: their ability to help bring out parts of you that might otherwise be restricted in your native tongue. This is something I really came to appreciate in Brazil and Colombia, where people more freely apply terms of endearment that would not easily be permitted in English. 

For example, in parts of Brazil and Colombia, it is perfectly acceptable to call a stranger “amor” (love) or “querido/querida” (dear). Frankly, I adore using such terms of endearment with strangers and find something comforting in being able to soften initial interactions by shortening the social distance between two people. While there are certainly ways of doing this in English, I’d simply have a difficult time calling a stranger – or even an acquaintance – “my love” or “dear” and would likely find that attempting to do so would produce the opposite effect of what such phrases achieve in Portuguese or Spanish. Using such terms with a woman would potentially leave me open to charges of misogyny, while using such terms on a man could lead to a heightened sense of aggression within our interaction. In short, the risk of misunderstanding is too great and I’d likely be forced to fall back on a more reserved manner of speaking.

In Brazil and Colombia, however, I use these two terms all the time – regardless of gender, age, or social status. Sure, one needs to exude a certain type of charm and attitude in order to pull them off, but the point is that they are acceptable. By using them, I find that I am able to disarm people and immediately foster a sense of openness, warmth and trust. I get to be more of a person that I want to be: playful, loving, and kind. As someone who suffers from the chronic affliction of “obvious gringo face”, I suppose that people don’t expect me to have fluency in either the language or the local customs, so perhaps I shouldn’t be using these terms as I do. But the point remains: people overwhelmingly respond positively to this more affectionate and outwardly playful version of myself and I, in turn, feel better about myself. People smile and are disarmed by this loving side of me – a side that is inherently within all of us, but which we might struggle to access consistently. Freed from the cultural, social and linguistic constraints of English, a part of me that I adore is able to emerge with greater frequency. I am extremely grateful to foreign languages for providing me with this. 

I will end this by similarly expressing my gratitude to my friend Geoffrey D’Humieres for being the person to teach me of the power that a foreign language has in this regard. Hailing from France, Geoff is a member of a family that was once included within the ranks of the aristocracy. While not necessarily possessing extreme wealth today, the extended family remains proud of their heritage. They wear rings emblazoned with the D’Humieres herald and organize regular reunions for the large extended family in their ancestral castle that is maintained by one of his uncles. Largely conservative and religious, his family holds tight to its beliefs with regard to decorum and raises its children to adhere to these norms. 

I met Geoff during my years in Beijing and I can honestly say that I don’t personally know a single foreigner who speaks Chinese as well as him.4. Watching him speak in his near perfect Beijing 爷们儿 accent was a sight to behold. Having seen him communicate in both French and English, I would watch as he would transform almost instantly into a different person. As he transitioned into Chinese, his eyes would light up and his body would bounce with an energy that wasn’t present with the same intensity when speaking French or English. He would become so playful, with a charming, childlike happiness forming in the corners of his mouth. To suggest that it was entirely absent when he was speaking French or English would be disingenuous, but it certainly took on a concentrated form when he spoke Chinese. The more I got to know Geoff, I came to realize that this wasn’t an act but rather an inherent part of who he is as a person. That we didn’t see it as much in English or French was an artifact of the constraints placed on him by Western culture and language. A completely foreign tongue like Chinese offered him a pathway towards engaging with this more liberated, playful part.

That, my friends, is a beautiful thing and I am grateful to foreign languages for the beauty they provide us.

  1. “Carioca” being the Brazilian term for people and things originating from Rio de Janeiro
  2. You could imagine the confusion that a Westerner might feel if, in the course of conversation, someone gestured downwards to refer to next week or upwards to signal last week. Similarly, you could imagine how perplexing it might be to have someone point behind themselves when referring to a point in the near future.
  3. I could go on and on about how cool Chinese is, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another love letter
  4. Excluding, of course, those with Chinese parents who migrated to a Western country