Here’s how learning a new language can build a more compassionate world.
We’ve experienced kuchisabishii—the act of mindlessly snacking not because we’re hungry, but because our mouth feels lonely—probably more than a few times during this pandemic. We might recognize the feeling of dangubiti—when we’ve spent another day being unproductive and purposeless—during a few of those hopeless quarantine days. We’ve also probably felt resfeber—a rush of anxiety and anticipation before our journey begins—maybe on our first trip after lockdown eased. These Japanese, Croatian, and Swedish words have no direct translations but reflect specific emotional experiences that the English language can’t accurately capture in a single word.
The words a culture chooses to introduce into their language reflect differences in ever-evolving cultural values, views, and beliefs. As travelers begin to venture out again, we can take this opportunity to approach the world with renewed appreciation and compassion by picking up a new language and paving the way for a more culturally empathetic world.
“Learning another language can enable you to be more cognitively flexible and better be able to imagine and represent how others are experiencing and thinking about the world. This then helps you understand how people from different backgrounds and cultural environments may respond to situations differently than you do,” explains Dr. Ariel Starr, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, who specializes in language development.
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Because there are very few direct translations between languages, Starr notes that when we’re learning a new language, we’re not just learning words; we’re learning new concepts that broaden our way of thinking about ourselves and others. Differences in how we perceive the world can manifest in the vocabulary across languages and can be seen in concepts as simple as colors. For example, some languages—like Korean, Vietnamese, and Khmer—use the same word for blue and green, suggesting that language can reinforce specific patterns about how we think about and interact with colors.
With his ability to speak French, German, Italian, and English fluently (as well as Greek, Icelandic, Russian, and Spanish to varying degrees), Ed Cooke is an avid traveler and Co-Founder of the language learning app Memrise. Cooke agrees that learning a foreign language is one way that travelers can build a more culturally empathetic world. Picking up a new language has allowed Cooke to connect deeply with people from different cultures for richer experiences abroad.
“To speak a different language isn’t just about gaining the practical skill of communicating with a new set of people. Rather, it’s about entering their world, their culture, and their forms of meaning,” explains Cooke, who first set out from his home in England to wander the globe when he was 18.
Cooke’s time studying cognitive science in Paris in his early twenties introduced him to the empathy-developing properties of language learning. Mesmerized by how French speakers affirmed and amplified each other’s emotions with an emphatic mais oui (but yes!), a complaining mais ça fait chié (that sucks!), or discontentment with facial expressions like puckered lips, allowed Cooke to understand the subtleties of a culture through its language.
“I was suddenly able to appreciate a whole emotional universe, like the relationship to the body, to identity, to love, to food, to the texture of everyday existence. As if being French is a way of experiencing and perceiving the world,” remembers Cooke. Understanding Parisians’ cultural habits, emotional tone, and interpersonal dynamics opened up new possibilities for friendship, experience, imagination, and love.
“Speaking even the very basics of a language shows a measure of respect that’s often experienced as a gift and an impetus for deeper engagement,” adds Cooke, recalling a time when he spontaneously attended a wedding dance party in Thessaloniki. His attempt to identify with the feelings of an elderly gentleman who was on his way to the party by using the word enthusiasmenos (roughly meaning enthusiasm-generating) landed Cooke an invitation to the wedding.
“Just being able to make minimal chit-chat and throw around a few amusing phrases like écheis ypérochi proforá (“you have a lovely accent”) meant I was sufficiently interesting to talk to and worth integrating into the festivities,” says Cooke. “It felt like the modality of distant tourism had been flipped into being internally included in their world.”
Curious travelers that are inspired to learn more than the pragmatic vocabulary of a new language are rewarded with deeper insight into a culture. As Starr explains, the grammar and syntax of a language also reveal differences in how cultures perceive the world. While in English, we see time as a finite resource by saying we “spend time” doing something, the Spanish verb pasar (as used in “to pass the time” doing something) suggests time is a less finite concept in that culture. “Even these various shifts and how we might translate a phrase like ‘spend time’ can actually have downstream effects in how you think about very basic concepts,” says Starr.
Learning another language is a worthwhile challenge that travelers can take on to nurture a more culturally empathetic world. Though we’re bound to make mistakes while learning by saying the wrong thing or exhibiting unintended rudeness by not accepting an extra portion of food, it’s these cross-cultural blunders that serve as a shortcut to perceiving the world in fundamentally different ways. As Cooke puts it, “you then understand some of the underlying values, dynamics, and imaginations of people that lead to an enhanced empathy.”