Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

hello-wordleIt’s January, in an obscure New York diner, where I’m meeting a close friend from high school, now a student at Yale. We haven’t seen each other for a year, and complaining about how difficult my Arabic class is seemed like a perfect icebreaker.

“I told you so. That’s why I stopped believing in studying foreign languages,” he says, nonchalantly, as if talking about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

“What do you mean by ‘I don’t believe in studying foreign languages’?”

“I just stopped. I realized that it took me ten years to become comfortable with my German and speak it as well as I speak Arabic or English. I did Italian for two years now, and I just don’t feel like I’m fluent. I can’t express myself in the way my thoughts actually flow. You understand what I mean?”

With only slightly better Italian than his, I was teaching it to beginners, so no, I didn’t understand.

“The time I’d invest in learning a foreign language I could use to learn a skill that is tangible, can make money and all of that,” he said.

The food came and we changed the topic. I left the restaurant wondering about the purpose of studying a foreign language. I started to question my decision to dedicate a huge portion of my college experience to studying a language that I might end up “not feeling comfortable with.” And then I wondered, in an era in which everyone speaks English, why bother with anything else?

Unfortunately, my friend’s opinion is shared among many other educated people, many of whom are not themselves monolingual. Michael Long, an expert at the University of Maryland, says that only a tiny minority of post-adolescent learners will attain near-native proficiency in another language. George Orwell, despite speaking seven languages said that he didn’t believe in foreign language instruction.[1]

So who does believe in language instruction? Europeans. In all the European countries except Wales and Italy, students must learn a foreign language throughout their compulsory education.[2] The literature on the benefits of bilingualism is vast: it improves your decision-making skills, increases brainpower, improves your employability, memory and interestingly, your English.

For me the debate is more personal. The language of my heart will always be my native Serbian, but I know that with every new language that I learn, I gain a new mind-set. With Italian, I picked up idioms that I can’t translate into English, precisely because they represent a reflection of Italian culture that is only comes with immersion, with the language itself. For example, Italians often say “Se devi fare una cosa, falla tutta” when they talk about their experiences. This idiom cannot be translated smoothly into English, but it roughly translates to “If you are to do something, do it completely.” Italians are such passionate people — the “all-or-nothing” type — and this idiom mirrors their mentality perfectly. The same applies to “I cavoli riscaldati,” which literally means “reheated cabbage,” but is used to describe a love affair revived. As this idiom reveals, Italians regard the “old-new” relationship as messy, stale and not worth getting into.

The differences between the languages are complicated, but make close reading in translation much more debatable and, to us literature geeks, more pleasurable. Close reading of my favorite Serbian poet, for example, is almost impossible in English as all of his work focuses on discussing the difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” concepts that are merged together and simplified to “feelings” in English. But there is a big difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” and you would be surprised how much knowing to differentiation between these two can influence your view on relationships. “Oсећај” is a feeling that derives either from satisfying an instinct or from anything related to physicality. If I were to touch you, for example, the result would be an “осећај:” you would feel my touch. If you were to sleep with a person you’re attracted to, you would still have an “осећај” because you do have “feelings” for him even though these feelings are inextricably linked to your sexual pleasure. “Oсећање,” however, is a feeling used strictly with the concept of love. You have feelings for your spouse, your relatives, close friends. “Oсећање” is always a spiritual connection, and preferably a lasting one.

In his poem “An Honest Poem,” Milan Rakic tries to tell a woman that he has “осећај” for her, but not “oсећање.” At the time when the poem was written, extramarital sexual intercourse was a taboo, and talking about them made Rakic a controversial poet. You can’t discuss Rakic without discussing this problem. Let’s take a look at the excerpts from the original and the translation:

O, sklopi usne, ne govori, ćuti,

ostavi misli nek se bujno roje,

i reč nek tvoja ničim ne pomuti

bezmerno silne osećaje moje.

O, close your lips, don’t talk, be silent,

let your thoughts pollulate,

and may your word do nothing to obfuscate

my unmeasurably deep feelings.

In the first stanza, the poet says that he has “unmeasurably deep feelings” for a woman that woke up next to him. A bit later he says something that to an English speaker could seem contradictory:

Za taj trenutak života i milja,

kad zatreperi cela moja snaga,

neka te srce moje blagosilja.

Al’ ne volim te, ne volim te, draga!

For that moment of life and delight,

In which all my strength trembles,

may my heart bless you.

But I don’t love you, I don’t love you, my dear!

What happened to the “unmeasurably deep feelings” we just read about? Nothing. They are still there, but they are coming from spiritual love. The whole poem is about how “осећај” can be beautiful and grand, but is not an “oсећање.” The two should be recognized as different and that is the only way that we can have healthy relationships. I can’t even count all of my girlfriends who got into (now failed) relationships with someone for whom they had an “осећај,” but thought they had love for.

English speakers sometimes seem confused when you ask them if they have feelings for someone they are considering getting into a relationship with. I never met a Serbian with the same problem. Serbians can have feelings while waiting for an”oсећање” to form. You have more time to figure things out before making a decision about declaring your feelings.

I don’t have a single argument that will make you believe that learning another language in the future will be profitable, but I can assure you that the beauty that you will start seeing after being exposed to a new system of forming communication will enrich you forever. Imagine how impressed your Russian business partner would be if you spoke to him in Russian. He would feel that you understand them better, be more open to compromise and more trusting. Knowing a foreign language in this situation seems like such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. If anything, learn a foreign language to defy the notion that all you do has to have a tangible outcome, and you will be a step closer to what we all want to achieve in life: purpose and happiness.

(And of course, if you learn Serbian, you could finally figure out what you “feel” for that person you started seeing recently.)


[1] Simon Kuper, Learning another language? Don’t bother.

[2] The Benefits of Second Language Study.