I recently decided to stretch my comfort zone by learning Spanish in preparation for an upcoming trip to Mexico. Through online apps and tutoring these past few weeks, I can proudly say that I’ve finally mastered the sentence “El gato come una manzana.” [The cat eats an apple.] 

While this may not sound like much of an accomplishment, it has opened my eyes to much more. I didn’t realize how much I’d learn about myself as I try to step outside of my language and culture and see the world with this new context.

The first surprise is that my toddler makes a lot more sense. I can feel her frustration in not being understood with her limited vocabulary and inexperienced pronunciation. I find myself excited just to be able to identify “una manzana” [an apple] and can now relate to her excitement simply pointing out everyday objects. And I’m amazed at how quickly she picks up new words and complex sentence structures every day. 

Second, it makes me wonder just how much language itself influences our world view. For example, in Spanish (and many other languages) every noun has a gender that influences adjectives and other modifiers. How it was decided that magazines are feminine and books are masculine is beyond me. And a cat is not just a cat but a “gato” or “gata” depending on its sex. It’s been foreign for me to use gender so extensively to categorize at the same time there has been a conscious trend toward more gender neutrality in our modern American culture. 

Another difference that has been compelling is the way one refers to age. In English we say “I am [number] years old.” In Spanish they say “I have [number] years.” Your age, and some other attributes, are referred to in the same way you would possessions you have earned, not as something you have become. While I’m sure most native speakers haven’t analyzed it in this way, to me it seems the Spanish approach inherently places a certain respect toward aging that is lacking in English. This is perhaps something we could use more of in our youth-oriented culture.

Finally, learning a language is just plain hard work. I have a new respect for non-native English speakers who embrace this challenge. As Americans we have had the tendency to think everyone should bend to our culture and language.  Having made my career in the business of communication, I know the way you say something can make a big difference in what is received. It’s easy to hear broken English and infer the person’s intelligence, but have you ever tried to speak another language? Much is learned about others and yourself when you look at the world through another perspective.  I would challenge you to give it a try.  

I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll find myself in a position where I need to say in Spanish “the cat eats an apple,” but the lessons I’ve learned in the meantime have been worthwhile and I plan to continue. I hope you do, too. 

¡Buena suerte! [Good luck!]

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw

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