Unlocked Doors –How Learning A Language Can Be More Than Just A Skill

Why does someone learn a new language? Ask any Irish person and they will probably tell you it is to help with their yearly trip to Italy after one too many confused and awkward interactions with a waiter, maybe it is for love having swiped left on all the English speakers in Dublin, or maybe it is to finally understand those reggaetón lyrics they keep mispronouncing.

For many of you reading this, these suggestions may make you laugh. For you language means so much more. It’s the chance to secure a better future for yourself, a better job, better education and overall, a better quality of life. To do this you have come to a foreign country, far from home, friends and family. You have given up everything and everyone you know in pursuit of this dream. Sounds difficult right? Well here is someone who can tell you why it is worth it.

“Home is where my physical house is, but also where my people are” Having lived in six countries while at the same time mastering five languages, you could say that Ross is the personification of what it means to be a nomad. Born in England to Arabic speaking parents of Libyan and Lebanese descent, Ross spent his childhood living in Italy. As a teenager he attended boarding school in Switzerland and by the age of 18 had already mastered three languages. Time spent studying in the USA was followed by journeys across all seven continents before once again settling in the Mediterranean.   

“You get to connect with people a lot better when you speak their language” – Photo: Ross Dweller

Now in his early 40’s and entering his 16th year living in Spain, one might think the concept of home might be hard to define for a man who has known so many homes in his lifetime. “Spain isn’t necessarily my home, but Madrid definitely is my city. I’ve lived here now for 16 years, I own a house here and all my friends are here. My life is here.”

For those of you reading this article, these words may ring true and while Ireland is the place you have chosen to put yourself at this time, it may still lack that feeling of home. The excitement and wonder of the experience may sometimes be overshadowed by a sense of loneliness and isolation as you try to define yourself in this new ‘home’.

With English being the lingua franca of business, politics and entertainment and most things one can think of these days, your motivation to learn English may be just this, a necessary undertaking for the keys to a better life. It can be so much more. “It offers so much more” including the opportunity to “access a different culture, a different ideology” and by doing so, offering a new perspective “enriching not only your linguistic abilities, but also your understanding of the world”

The power of language to open doors normally locked, was personified for Ross by his two trips to Cuba. First travelling there as a typical, non-Spanish speaking tourist, his reflections on the trip convey an almost sense of regret that is first experience of the country remained quite superficial and peripheral. “You can read all the books you want about the history and whatever else but you don’t really get to understand how the people think, the general mentality of the locals.”

While the warmth and embrace of the country and its people were very much felt, compared to his second trip some years later, it felt like travelling to a new world. Now fluent in Spanish the “experience was completely different” with something as simple as “going to a restaurant and really understanding what the particular dishes are made with” allowing for a more fulfilling and authentic experience.

“I think you feel powerless, you feel like you don’t deserve this. You have a sense of diminished self-confidence”

– Ross Dweller

It’s easy to agree that learning a foreign language is difficult but do people really understand what makes it difficult? Most would look at complex grammar and difficult pronunciation as being the difficult elements, but often it is the most mundane activity that proves the most difficult.   

Starting from zero means finding friends, relationships, hobbies, accommodation, doctors, supermarkets… with all of this now navigated through English. This goes along with the no less difficult task of defining yourself, and your identity, in this new home.

Sitting down with your friends, flatmates or classmates, you feel relaxed and at ease with yourself as you look forward to making new friends Having started confidently you know find yourself struggling to find that precise word you want to say, or unable to quite catch what the other person is saying as they try to understand your seemingly cryptic communication skills. By the end you feel different, alone, misunderstood and further convinced that the people around you will never meet the real you.

These fears and worries are as relatable to a man who fluently speaks five languages as they are to someone struggling with one.

“The most challenging part is communicating with the people that are native, understanding that conversation and being able to interact and to make contributions that are both either insightful, funny or interesting. Just being able to actually express yourself or show the world who you really are.”

Ross’ words were all too relatable to my own experience learning Spanish while living in Spain. Frustrated by my inability to express myself, walking away from a conversation it felt as if I hadn’t even been there.

“When you start speaking language you sound like either a child of an idiot. You do kind of feel like you can’t really get your point across. You can’t get people to really appreciate who you really are. How do you, how do you sound funny? How do you, how do you sound intelligent? Because obviously you’re limited by the words that you can use”

This experience is something all of us who choose to learn a new language go through, feeling like an “observer rather than a participant” while at the same time making you feel “both stupid and insecure”

“Whatever opportunity you have to to be able to talk to people and socialize, take it” Photo by Ross Dweller

While these early days of life in a new country may seem lonely and difficult, a drift from all that which makes sense to you, there is reason to be hopeful. Perseverance and persistence are the keys to self-actualization in your new home and Ross offers his insight into what it takes

“Speaking is important, but you need to acquire all the knowledge Listen to the radio because you get used to understanding somebody without having to look at their lips moving. I would do a lot that I would read a lot because reading gives you all the vocabulary that you need or even more capital than the average person. You need to change how you’re approaching these situations. You have to do a bit of groundwork and bring it to the table.”

Having mastered four, Ross now finds himself learning his fifth language and with it, a return to a familiar feeling of helplessness. Born out of a want to better connect with his Greek roots, a trip to Greece two years ago to practice his language skills proved to be a humbling experience as he struggled to be understood by the locals.

Undeterred, it was a reminder of “the element of obsessiveness” that is necessary to learn a language. Whether it’s to be able to flawlessly order a bottle of wine in French or fulfil a dream of living abroad, the hard work and dedication will eventually pay dividends. “If you’re expecting to do that without the groundwork, the boring bit, it’s not going to happen”

“It frustrates me where people go, oh, you’ve got such a knack for languages, it’s so easy for you. Nothing is easy. I worked hard, very hard”

The task may seem daunting but the reward will be ever lasting. While there will always be a limitation to our self expression when speaking a new language, with dedication and belief, there is no limit to the person you can be when speaking any language. Before long, people won’t even recognise you. The cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies you learn comprise the recipe for a new you and the fulfilment of that dream you set out with.

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