COLUMN: Finding the words to keep us wise

Finding the words to keep us wise

I’m a firm believer in making time for hobbies and following curiosities.

Whether we have one hour a week to devote to practice and enjoy a pursuit, or a daily chunk of time to satisfy a need to know, this time is sacred. It’s vital to our personal growth, our happiness and our quality of life.

For some of us, this can be the difference between eagerly greeting the day or simply getting out of bed. Age doesn’t matter. Neither does culture or socio-economic background. I believe that human beings are driven to lead a soulful life.

One of my curiosities has always been languages spoken around the world.

I grew up with pentalingual parents and so I was exposed to Hindi, Kiswahili, Gujerati, Kutchi and English. The latter two were my first two languages, then French became one of my favourite subjects through Grade 12.

I attempted a continuing education class in Mandarin during my college years. I couldn’t quite grasp the complexities of the tonal language but still, I gave it a shot.

While most people who create a five- or 10-year plan in university focus largely on career and travel, my plan included a list of languages I would learn.

I never did check off any of those languages since then (nor did I buy the hobby farm I had imagined) but this is a reminder to me and to you that it is never too late to learn.

Nearly 20 years since my Mandarin night classes, I’ve embarked on a journey to Spanish fluency.

Here’s what I know about the benefits of learning a new language.

Language and culture are so intertwined that you can’t help learning about the people behind the words. How a culture defines time, looks at family relationships, perceives the natural elements becomes clear in the way they talk about these things.

Immersing yourself in someone’s language is like a window into their mind.

It’s good for the brain! Several studies have shown that knowing more than one language, even learning them later in life, can stave off dementia.

Being able to switch between languages also makes us better-equipped to multitask, problem-solve and focus our attention in other situations.

Travelling becomes a different experience. If you can learn enough of a language to have even a slow conversation with a local (tip: learn how to communicate that you are a beginner learner) you add a new dimension to the trip.

It’s also a kind gesture when you take the time to learn someone else’s language.

Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

It’s fun! I like to roll up my sleeves and really tackle a language, break it down into its little participles. But if that’s not your idea of a good time, even learning a dozen key phrases can be fun.

I think that’s the trick. Do it in a way that is enjoyable. Are you social? Join a local meetup! Do you have a long commute for work? Grab a CD with audio lessons. Do you have a friend or colleague who speaks another language you are interested in? Share a meal with them and pick their brain.

Be open to the many ways you can enrich your life with a linguistic experience.

Learning a new language gives us an appreciation for newcomers to Canada who don’t speak English or French off the bat. It takes time, practise and opportunity to become fluent.

Newcomers are also navigating a new culture, new laws and a new social system. They’re trying to find homes, employment and schools. It’s more than just a hobby. It’s a struggle for some and we can find empathy for them when we attempt to step out of our own comfort zones.

So, what language is next for you?

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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