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How Speaking More Than One Language Changes Us For the Better

This post is contributed by Deidra Razzaque, a SPS Featured Blogger.

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I’ve gained incredible blessings from living much of my life in two languages. During my second year of high school, I was mildly obsessed with Russia and the African continent, so how I ended up in Beginning Spanish is something of a mystery. But knowing Spanish has been an on-going source of positive transformation in my life.

According to an article from the Huffington Post,

There’s evidence that children who grow up speaking two languages may be more creative, that bilingualism might stave off dementia, and that bilinguals are better at tasks that involve switching attention between different objects.

And an article on Mental Floss notes that people who have learned a second language as adults do better on cognitive tests. All of these are great and useful reasons to persevere with learning a language over time.

I’ve also discovered some advantages that can’t be measured as easily.


1. You can learn to keep going.

When you learn a second language, if you don’t know the word but you want to be understood, you work around it. You just keep talking until the person understands what you are trying to say. And if you’re a slow and easily-embarrassed speaker, but you keep at it anyway, you may lose some listeners along the way, but you will eventually realize that feeling slow or embarrassed has actually not killed you.

Rather, I’ll bet it has given you some friends and some funny stories to tell. So the things you gain from learning another language will probably kick your bravery gene into gear and help you take risks in other areas of your life as well.

2. There is more than one way to do everything.

Just the act of saying one sentence in another language helps you see that there is always another way. It gives you more patience with people who are different from you. It can help you turn a frustrating experience on its head and think about it differently.

There is beauty and power in words and experiences that cannot be translated directly. In Costa Rica, cafecito is not just a little coffee. It’s a ritual of connection. It’s a way to honor small pleasures, to delight in what we share with others, and to refresh your spirit in the middle of the day. And there are countless words in other languages that are the same. Behind each word we speak, there is the weight of history, experience, and meaning.

Coffee Heart Art By Ian L.

Image: Microsoft Office

3. Knowing two languages is like being able to live two lives at once.

My friend Jennifer says that knowing two languages has given her greater scope and made her world seem larger. She remembers buying music in Venezuela when she was a teenager, and listening to it years later, once she was fluent in Spanish. After years of enjoying the music, recognizing that she actually knew what the singer was saying created a powerful shift in her perception of herself and the world.

Notice how you feel when you speak or read your second language. See if you can look behind the words you are using and recognize how saying them shifts something in you. Maybe your mind seems to move at a slower pace or speeds up when you speak. Maybe you feel quieter or more lively.

Obviously there’s a connection between language and culture. But even when I speak Spanish in Vermont, I feel more colorful, and I speak more loudly. I am more inquisitive and analytical in English, and more like I’m standing in the dancing in the middle of joy when I speak Spanish. Speaking a second language helps me to know parts of myself I might never have met otherwise.

The awkwardness of learning a language usually vanishes once you use it regularly. Today, I can only hazily recall the pain of birthing the two delightful children who now make me laugh every day. In much the same way, the discomfort and frustration I felt when I was first learning Spanish is a memory, not an active feeling anymore.

Now I can laugh when I think about saying, as every new Spanish speaker does, that I was pregnant, when what I intended to say was that I was embarrassed. And when my daughter gripes about how illogical it is that each noun has a gender in Spanish, I can stay calm and explain that it’s just like memorizing multiplication tables—you have to do it, not analyze it, and then one day, poof!, it will be second nature and you won’t need to think about it at all.

What this Means For You

If you’re dealing with the ups and downs of re-entry, you might be tempted to let that second language go right into the recycling bin along with the airline boarding pass that brought you home. Life has enough challenges, right? But I encourage you to maintain your second language, and even to grow your fluency.

Here are some enjoyable ways you can keep that second language alive for yourself:

  1. Write letters to friends in-country (and ask them to write back and to send you reading materials)
  2. Skype with your friends, either those in your host country or those who traveled there with you
  3. Read books
  4. Watch movies
  5. Find on-line sites(or use Google Translator to change sites from your native language to your second language)
  6. Teach someone else

Last week I needed to drive several hours, and while I drove I listened to the music of Malpaís. This is an amazing Costa Rican band that has near cult-status with Ticos. As I listened, I started to marvel at all that had happened in my life as a result of knowing Spanish.

Places I have adored, jokes that have doubled me over, insightful books I couldn’t stop reading, and so many other small daily gifts would have been lost to me without Spanish.

And beyond the small things, I have gained the love of the incredible man who is my husband, the blessing of knowing and raising our wonderful children, delightful friends, and a greater kinship with the more than 470 million Spanish-speakers in the world today.

For so long, Spanish was work, but now it’s one of my favorite aspects of who I am.

Here’s a Youtube link to my favorite Malpaís song, the hauntingly lovely “Mas El Norte del Recuerdo” (Further North Than Memory). If I could tattoo a song on myself that would surround me like an aura, this would be the song:



What about you? How do you maintain your language skills when you’re “at home”?