20 April 2016

Benefits of learning a new language and culture

I have often written about life as an expatriate.  For me it was not a conscious decision in other words, I didn't all of a sudden think I want to be an expatriate and hence packed my bags and went to live in another country.  No, rather it was a decision made on my behalf by my family.  My father had received a promotion and he was offered a new position in England which he accepted and as a result our family moved to England in June 1979.  I was eight at the time when we left Turkey to go and live in England.  I didn't know how to speak any English beyond the rather basic words and sentences such as, hello, cat, dog, how are you? I am fine, thank you. 

 I am pleased to say that having had the opportunity to learn new languages at a young age has been very beneficial to me.  At boarding school in England I studied English, Latin and French.  I only studied Latin for two years and I find the basic principles of Latin continue to assist me in learning new languages.  Later, after I was married, my husband and I lived in France for six years then over the years, different postings have meant that I have also had the opportunity to live in Egypt and Tunisia going on to study Egyptian and Tunisian Colloquial Arabic.  Learning a language is a work in progress, my knowledge of Arabic is not as good as it should be but at least I have a good foundation and comprehension of the language after two years of formal study.  If I was to rate how fluently I speak these languages, then I would say after Turkish and English I would put French next and then Arabic. 

Whilst some people hate change of any kind whether it is to their daily routine or having to move house, I seem to thrive and embrace change.  To put this into context, just in the last twenty-four years I have moved house thirteen times.  I have so far lived as an expatriate in five countries and I have been an expatriate for a total of 33 years.  I therefore wholeheartedly agree with the proverb, "variety is the spice of life".   This is one of the reasons why I am very pleased to be living in Israel and being faced with the opportunity to learn Hebrew.  I wanted to pull together this discourse on learning languages with a passage I recently read in one of my all time favourite books namely, "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, MD.  In the Notes and References section at the back of the book is the following interesting extract and I quote;

"Culture shock is brain shock: Learning a new culture as an adult requires that one use new parts of the brain, at least for language.  Brain scans show that people who learn one language and then, after a time lag, learn another store the languages in separate areas.  When bilingual people have strokes, they sometimes lose the ability to speak one language but not the other.  Such people have distinct neuronal networks for their two languages, and perhaps for other aspects of their two cultures.  But brain scans also show that children raised learning two languages simultaneously during the critical period develop an auditory cortex that represents both languages together.  This is why Merzenich advocates learning as many different language sounds as possible in early childhood: such children develop a single, large cortical library of sounds and have an easier time learning languages later in life.  For brain scan studies, see S. P. Springer and G. Deutsch. 1998. Left brain, right brain: Perspectives from cognitive science, 5th ed. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co., 267."

It's official, it is beneficial to learn a new language and be exposed to new cultures.  According to the above extract it is best to be introduced to as many languages as possible as a child as this assists in learning languages in later life.  Having said that, regardless of what age you are when you learn a new language you will know that it is a very worthwhile and valuable skill.  I hope you will be motivated and encouraged to take up another language.  You may wish to combine your newly acquired language skills with voluntary work by doing Voluntary Service Overseas http://www.vsointernational.org/   This is one thing I would very much like to do and hopefully one day soon I will be able to fulfill this long held ambition.
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