Hearing foreign languages on a daily basis is part of my new routine living in London working for an international company and exploring Europe on the weekends. Heck, even British English sometimes feels like a another language. I quite fancy (<-- British speak) being exposed to new languages and cultures but what amazes me most is the sheer number of Europeans who speak perfect English -- along with several other languages.
Case in point: my European coworkers will be speaking flawless English one minute and then effortlessly transition into their second, third, or even forth language in the next minute depending on who’s on the other end of the phone line. Within a 20 foot radius from my desk I hear Dutch, Turkish, German, French, Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Arabic, and Italian. DAILY. To call it humbling is an understatement. To call it shameful is more accurate.
Shameful because I’m competitive and obviously not winning this imaginary language skills contest. Heck I can’t even medal I’m so far behind in the linguistics race. This is unacceptable to my type A perfectionist self! I thought I was fairly smart. I took my two years of required language and then some. I spent 6 months in a Spanish language immersion program in Spain. I even graduated with a degree in Spanish. Well guess what? Those credentials are downright pathetic to these Europeans. They’ve spent their entire lives growing up multilingual. Many of them grew up in bilingual households given the proximity of EU countries and ease of travel across borders. All of them have been taught English as part of their public education since at least the age of 5.
Rather than continue my pity party for one I’m trying to appreciate the fact that I still have the capacity to learn more languages. I don’t have to stop learning just because I’m thirty. I recognize that English is the global business language and I’m so grateful to have been born in the democratic USA, but I don’t think the majority of Americans realize how many other cultures and languages exist beyond our borders. I didn’t until I moved abroad for the first time. Did you know only ~30% of Americans had passports as of 2013? As a country we could all benefit from broadening our horizons. Travel opens our minds to new cultures and languages. If you can’t travel far, learn a new language. Live vicariously by reading a travel blog or listening to a travel podcast (Travel with Rick Steves is my favorite).
Here’s to learning new languages, experiencing new cultures, and traveling outside our comfort zones more often. I’ve got some studying to do now if you’ll excuse me.