When Languages Collide

For my undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon, I majored in Spanish and minored in German: an admittedly odd combination that tends to garner looks of “???” when I tell people what I studied in college. I’ve had a knack for languages since I started taking Spanish classes back in middle school, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have studied several languages throughout my academic career.

If you’ve ever studied a language like German or Latin that involves noun cases, you’ve felt the frustration of not being able to intuit which case is used in certain situations; which article goes with each word; what gender each noun is… foreign languages are hard and require a huge number of hours to truly master. Studying other languages has taught me that I am immeasurably lucky to be a native English speaker.

For as much difficulty as I’ve encountered learning the intricacies of other languages, my eyes have been opened to the reality that English is just, well, weird. There are “rules” that aren’t rules, spelling and pronunciation that make zero sense, and bizarre quirks that confound even native speakers, nevermind someone for whom English is not their native tongue. When you learn another language, you learn how to talk about language: structure and mechanics, pieces and parts of speech, and features that help unpack the issues that many native speakers have with the English language.

I can definitively say that being a student of languages has helped me become a better writer in English. Learning another language is useful in itself because it opens doors to new people, places, and experiences that couldn’t happen with a language barrier. Since my study abroad experience in Spain back in college, I’ve recognized immersion as the only way to fully learn (and appreciate!) another language. Culture and context are tantamount to language learning, particularly with colloquial language and informal conversation (“slang”) that comprises so much of how we communicate with one another.

For as much as I’ve been questioned about my choice to study languages in college and not something “more marketable” (whatever that means), I am forever grateful for the experiences that language learning has given me, particularly with how the new work economy is shifting. As increasing numbers of professionals leave the corporate life to pursue self-employment and freelance work, the corporate ladder is disappearing. Work is becoming more about communication, transferrable skills, and how well you can learn and adapt more than a static skillset.

Language learning is an exercise in humility: practicing another language is a very vulnerable thing, particularly among native speakers. I’ve had to relinquish my perfectionist tendencies and just make the attempt to communicate: when you let go of wanting everything to be perfect and just go for it, magic happens: connections form; breakthroughs occur. ‘Progress, not perfection’ has become my approach to learning languages, and it’s also become my business mantra.

Making a connection, however imperfect, is only possible when you’re humble, vulnerable, and open. It’s true of language learning, of business, and of life in general.

(The image for this post is a snapshot of a few of the language books in my collection. I’ve culled many other books over time in Kondo-esque purges, but these will stay forever!)