What Learning a Language Really Teaches You

“Mind Your Language: 01/01/07” by kiwanja is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

By Matthew Edwards, PhD. – Associate Professor of Spanish, Associate Faculty of Latinx and Latin American Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Like many of us, English is my first language. As a young person growing up in Southern Ontario, Canada, I studied French as a second language in grade school. When I entered high school, I dreamt of participating in a student exchange program. I hadn’t liked my French teacher so much, but I was convinced that I needed to leave my small town and explore something new. So, as soon as I had a chance I applied. “I want to go to France,” I remember telling my friends. “I need to learn French so I can better understand Canada’s cultural history,” I recall repeating to the adults around me, “It is my patriotic duty.”  That was for my parents—they had promised to help me pay for this trip.

I soon learned that I had been accepted into the program. I was excited, thrilled. But, I was not heading to Europe. I would not learn about Canada’s colonial origins. Instead, I was going to Oaxaca, a city in southern Mexico.  Today the irony of this change in destination is significant. As a 15 year-old, though, I remember being left in awe, and then placing the atlas on our kitchen table and searching with my parents, trying to locate where this adventure was taking me. Really unaware of what I was getting myself into, I made the switch from Advanced French to Beginner Spanish that Fall and, in March, I boarded a plan for the first time in my life, by myself. Over the next 3 months I didn’t say much and I was confused a lot. I watched people and tried to understand. When I came home in May, to my surprise, my experience was considered by many to be a failure. I have to confess, I may have had too much fun. Maybe I didn’t study (at all). But, I did genuinely feel like I did learn a lot. The problem was, I did not know what I had learnt, and that I did not come back fluent. I could not speak Spanish as well as they expected.

Today, I am a Spanish Professor at UMKC and regularly direct our Summer Study Abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina.   Now I understand things differently. Over the years I have come to understand language learning as a trip itself—much like the one I went on in high school. More than verbs, adjectives and grammar structures, more than measurable gains—like fluency– learning a language teaches us how to fail, and how to be different and confused, and how to confuse others, and accept their upset, inpatient expressions.  Learning a language represents a decision to leave our comfort zone and say goodbye to “straight talk”, to making jokes and understanding punchlines.  When you enroll in a language program and step into a classroom, you embark on an adventure in Difference—it is a unique place and if you have never been there, look it up. Much like my trip to Oaxaca, travelling to Difference makes a political statement. But what does it say? If going to France for me represented my “patriotic mission” and me following an obvious pathway, what did it mean when I decided to go to Oaxaca? I like to think that going to Oaxaca told people I was ok with being confused myself, with being in new situations, with feeling unsure and not having the right answers. I like to think this because these are really important skills to have. They help us engage with different people, and interact with unfamiliar ideas. They are essential to understanding how people feel, and to spending time in their shoes.

I like to tell this story to my students. While we may forget how to conjugate verbs properly, and we may loose our nice accents, learning a language teaches you important skills that will help all of us to engage respectfully, patiently and courageously while we travel, time and again, through Difference.

For more information about learning languages, please contact Matthew Edwards and the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UMKC.