4 Unexpected Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Before moving to Madrid, I assumed picking up the Spanish language would be easy.

I knew the basics, a few essential phrases. “How hard could it be?” I thought.

It didn’t take me long to realize I was in way over my head.

So far, it’s been an incredible experience. I won’t mince words though, it’s also been such a challenge. Though it’s not always easy, every little breakthrough makes it all worth it.

However what are even more profound are the unexpected benefits I’m gaining during the process.

I’m slowly beginning to realize that I’m gaining so much more than just improved Spanish.

Here are four unexpected ways you’ll benefit during the process:

1. You Make Amazing Connections

As I’m writing this right now I’m in a small Galician village called Fene. I’m sitting at the kitchen table and my Swiss friend Estevan’s 84-year-old Grandmother, Diña, is insisting that I eat more Biscochada (A Gallego pastry made with eggs, sugar and flour). This woman will not back down. “Dina, estoy lleno” I plead with her to no avail.

Last night my Swiss friend Estevan (who speaks fluent English, Spanish and French) took me to his relatives’ house for dinner.

Most people that I’ve met in Madrid know English, but here in Galicia, not so much. I had one choice: speak Spanish or don’t speak at all. Sure, I could have used Estevan as a translator (which was necessary a handful of times), but I was determined to not let myself off the hook.

It ended up being one of the most amazing nights during my time here in Spain.

We spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. I didn’t understand everything, and there were many things I wanted to say but couldn’t. But this night I had never spoken or understood more Spanish in my entire life.

I can say with the utmost conviction that this type of experience was a distant hope two months ago.

It got me thinking: in a certain sense, I am a direct beneficiary of those who have taken the time to learn English. The connection that we share is something they’ve given me.

For me, learning the Spanish language is a way to try to give the gift back.

Last night, I got the chance to start giving it back.

I’ve come to realize that in life, just as in business, all it takes is one connection or experience that can change your whole world.

Learning another language has the potential to change the entire professional and personal trajectory of your life, or someone else’s.

When we first begin to learn a language, we think it’s about us.

And maybe it is—in the beginning.

But the longer we stick with it, the more we will realize it’s not so much about us. It’s about the gift we are able to give. Maybe it’s a business connection, maybe it’s a lifelong friendship.

Or maybe it’s just a few kind words you exchange with a stranger on the metro that can make all the difference.

2. You Gain Self-Confidence

As a non-native speaker in a foreign country, there’s nothing more intimidating than entering into a conversation when you’re not confident in the native language.

You muster as much courage as you can.

Your breath begins to shorten.

Your heart starts to race.

What if I sound like an idiot?” our paralyzing fear of rejection whispers to us.

You struggle to remember the words you’ve learned. You desperately try to piece them together in the correct order.

Anyone learning a foreign language can relate to these feelings.

When we speak a language in this way, we make ourselves vulnerable. Chances are we’re going to fall flat on our faces many times before we start to get the hang of it.

Eventually, we just make a choice—we choose to feel the fear and speak anyway. If people laugh, so what? What’s the worst that can happen, are we going to vanish?

There’s nothing more satisfying than the confidence you gain by facing your fears.

Before long, you start winning small victories. A phrase spoken correctly here, a sentence understood there.

Before long, your fear begins to transform into confidence.

And that’s a confidence that’s earned.

3. It Teaches You Grit, Perseverance and Patience

Learning a language has been such a challenge for my ego.

But it’s a challenge I’m willing to accept because deep down I believe it’s worth it.

The process of learning a new language has taught me so much more than conversational Spanish, it’s taught me how to persevere.

It’s taught me to check my ego and pride at the door, and to be willing to start from scratch. It’s taught me to lean directly in to the awkwardness and discomfort.

But I would be lying if I said I didn’t seriously question whether or not it’s worth it.

One moment I swear I’m finally getting it.

The other day my Spanish friend Juan Carlos came over for lunch and we spoke almost exclusively in Spanish.

The next moment I feel like a small child lost in the mall.

As I’m writing this sentence right now, a teacher in my Bilingual School just approached me to ask if I could teach her English. I understood about 17% of what she said. She was speaking Spanish so fast, I had to grab a fellow teacher to come translate.

The truth is—I get frustrated. I get discouraged.

I get embarrassed.

I want to throw my hands up and say forget it.

But the more I hang in there, the more obvious it becomes. No matter how frustrating it is, or how little progress you think you’ve made.

You just never give up.

Because those moments when you’re finally able to communicate in another language—when you understand someone and someone understands you—those moments make it all worth while.

4. You Learn To Not Take Yourself So Seriously

Learning a language be challenging enough. If you can’t laugh at yourself, it makes it that much harder.

You will make mistakes. You will say absurd things that don’t make sense in any language. And you know what?

It’s absolutely hilarious.

In my own experience, I realized I have to be willing to flat on my face. I have to be willing to look and sound ridiculous. In that sense, I have to become like a child again:

Helpless, lost and absolutely fearless.

Free of self-consciousness as much as possible.

Free of the fear of the embarrassment that comes when you realize you may have just propositioned your waiter for sex instead of asking for the chicken. Free to admit you don’t know something—a word, a phrase or the entire conversation you’re having.

Because only when we’re free enough to laugh at ourselves are we able to relax and just trust the process.

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