Languages Come Easily (4)

A few years ago, it dawned on me that I did not know the foreign language most commonly spoken in the U.S., Spanish. So I enrolled at a local community college to study it, my seventh language other than English. I immediately noticed the similarity to French and especially to Italian. In fact, as I progressed, I found myself often confusing Spanish and Italian. It took a fair amount of discipline to force myself not to slide back and forth between the two languages.

With the passing of time and without opportunities to speak the languages I have been adept at, my grasp of various languages has faded. My German has suffered the most—I know few venues where I can practice it. I find more and more often that when I am speaking one language, I sometimes use vocabulary or grammar from another, leaving my interlocutors puzzled. The worst is my tendency to mix up Spanish and Italian which are so similar, but the language I slip into most easily is Vietnamese, which I spoke constantly for fourteen years. And every once in a while, I catch myself thinking in Vietnamese as I did for so long.

The principal benefit of knowing multiple languages has been the growth in my ability to think. Training my mind to cogitate using different linguistic logics has improved my aptitude for reasoning. I’m reminded of my training in music whose logic is unlike any other. By seeing and understanding and thinking in varying logic systems, my brain has expanded its grasp and depth.

The greatest resulting value has been my skill at thinking through noncorporeal issues, those matters that have no material existence. Things like love, patriotism, courage, and devotion now have new clarity in my mind.

My sense is that mastery of any discipline, including those I’m weakest in (e.g., mathematics, science, chemistry, physics), greatly enriches the mind. But not all improve the ability to write. That’s my discipline and what I care the most about. My knowledge of languages has dramatically enhanced my way with words.

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