The Magic of Speaking in a Foreign Language

a deck of golden cards and dice representing the magic of foreign languages
Have you ever been enamored with a foreign language?

In middle school, I had Hispanic friends who would often speak Spanish within earshot of me. For me, it was like watching a magician perform a magic trick. Maybe it was the sound of the language. Maybe it was their ability to seamlessly go back and forth between English and Spanish. Or maybe it was the sheer fact that I didn’t know what the hell was going on yet knew communication was taking place. In any case, this experienced motivated me to study languages, and I’ve been a committed student of Spanish and Arabic for the last 10+ years.

After being in the game for so long, I no longer think of foreign languages as a magic trick. Occasionally, I try to resurrect the childlike wonder that accompanied my initial plunge, but I’d be lying if I told you that nothing has changed after a decade of familiarization. In short, I have progressed from the honeymoon stage to the marriage stage of the relationship.

Language study is something I invest in on an almost daily basis between friends, family, and work-related activities. I can’t imagine my life without Spanish or Arabic. During the last decade, I’ve made countless friends from Latin America and the Middle East and many fond memories that would otherwise be lost in translation. Spanish and Arabic are also an important part of my professional resume. I worked as a translator for a summer and know that being trilingual is a big asset in the 21st century. By my estimate, the thousands of hours I’ve dedicated to this area have been well worth it. I may no longer see foreign languages as a magic trick, but they are most definitely a superpower.

Let me give you a vivid illustration of how attached linguists can be to the languages they study. Last year, I was playing pick-up basketball with one of my classmates at the university gym. His name is Steven. He was a high-motor, high-flying athlete, but after one of his awkward jumps he got clipped by a defender and landed on the side of his head. Thump. Steven was evidently concussed. We took him to the hospital, and after a couple hours of waiting he decided to sleep on it due to the long wait and high cost of treatment. Can you guess what Steven kept on asking us while he was waiting to be seen for a potentially serious injury? He asked us to speak Arabic with him, at least a dozen times! In his dizzied, confused state, his biggest fear was that he had forgotten Arabic, a language he had invested hundreds of hours in and clearly had an emotional attachment to.

Do you study a foreign language (or have an interest)? How has your perception of it changed over time? Has it opened any personal or professional doors? Do you plan on studying it the rest your life? How do you make it a regular part of your life, especially if you do not live in a country where it is spoken?

This language business is definitely an adventure. For further reading, check out the linguist tag and The Psychology of Speaking in a Foreign Language.

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