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December 2017

The Gifts of Learning a New Language

Learning languages changes the way we think

Many of us are looking for the perfect gift this holiday season, and there are certainly many great gifts to give language learners in your life. But there are also many gifts the act of language learning gives to us. This very topic was discussed in a recent article by Quartz entitled, "Learning a new language changes the way you perceive reality".

In the article, the author describes how learning Spanish helped him see common words in a new light. A good example of this point would be an English speaker learning the Eskimo language, which has 50 different words for ‘snow’. An English speaker learning these many variations begins to see snow itself in a new light (both figuratively and literally). Just learning new ways of describing things teaches us that there is more complexity to something we previously thought of as simple.

Transforming animals

The author of the aforementioned article cites the Basque word for ‘dolphin’ – izurde – which, he states, is a contraction of 'sea-pig'. Would that change your view of dolphins, those smart and smiley sea mammals, if you called them pigs of the sea? Similarly, the word ‘shark’ in Italian is sometimes referred to as pescecane, which translates to ‘fish-dog’. While ‘squalo’ may be the more popular word in modern times, it was the ‘dogfish’ that Pinocchio had to face in his original great adventures.

The language blockchain


As bitcoin carry with them ledgers of the past, so too do words carry remnants of their past histories. The word ‘salary’, for example, is derived from the time when workers were paid in salt (sal being ‘salt’ in Latin). This speaks loads about how their lives must’ve been, back when salt was such a valued commodity for life that it could pass as payment. We didn’t always have fridges, after all.

This embedded history in each word, which etymologists (those who study words and their origins) deal with, shows us a lot about how we’ve evolved over time. The evolution of a word can show the intertwining of past cultures, shared traditions, the value of communication (as is in the case of creole languages), and changing times. For example, ‘internet’ is still ‘internet’ in many languages. The word didn’t exist until modern times, at which point it was simply easier to borrow the word (see loan words) than to create a new one.

(If you’re interested in etymology, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary, which provides the background of many English words!)

It all points back to who we are as people. Language is the gift of reminding us of who we are, while helping us to see the world in ways we never imagined, in ways people in other parts of the world take for granted. In learning a new language, we learn about what it means to be a human existing on this planet, while learning to communicate with them as well.

What benefits have you been gifted from your journey in language learning? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning articles!

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