Newsletter #5 - The Power of Learning Languages

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Photo by Florian Klauer / Unsplash

Hello everyone,

I hope you are doing well and enjoying the springtime! Recently I have found myself thinking about languages more than usual. Mainly I have been thinking about two things, firstly the importance of language to be able to express oneself and show your personality, and secondly how to effectively learn new languages. For this reason, today's newsletter will focus on languages.

Do we have different personalities in different languages?

This was a question I found myself considering a few weeks ago. I can't remember what sparked the initial question, but I pondered it quite a bit. When searching within myself I concluded that I feel like my personality is slightly different depending on whether I speak English or Swedish. In English, I am more open and talkative, while in Swedish I feel as if I am more drawn back. This is not to say that I am the most talkative extroverted person you have ever met in English, but noticeably more than in Swedish I would argue. For this reason, I get the feeling that maybe I am not entirely the same person in both languages.

I raised the question with a close friend to get a different perspective. Swedish is our mother tongue, but we both speak English at a quite advanced level and some high school French that in my case I have mostly forgotten. We both agreed that trying to express your "full personality" in a language you have not mastered can be extremely challenging. This is usually not a problem for me as I have no trouble speaking or understanding English or Swedish which are the languages dominating my everyday life. However, when I lived in Switzerland this became more of an issue. Living in the German-speaking part of Switzerland many of the people I interacted with daily did not speak much English. Unfortunately Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut, a common phrase I resorted to when explaining my lacking German skills. Trying to communicate with authorities in a language you barely speak can be both difficult and frustrating I found. This gave me a newfound understanding of the challenges of emigrating to a new country where you don't speak the language.

For myself, it even feels like English comes more naturally than Swedish at times depending on the topic. Most media and information I consume is in English, everything from the academic articles at university to the multiple podcasts I listen to, or the books I read. However, probably on average 80% of my speaking is in Swedish. English has become my intellectual language as a consequence of the information diet I have. That is one of the reasons this blog is in English and not Swedish. I find that a lot of the interesting thoughts I have are formulated in English.

For me, my conversation with my friend and further contemplating led me to another question: Can we truly know someone if we don't speak their native language? It is an interesting question to which I don't have an answer. I think this highlights the importance of learning new languages to interact with people you care about. You can certainly learn a lot about a culture and traditions without understanding the language, but in my view, a crucial part will always be missing if you don't speak the language. On the theory that we have different personalities in different languages even when we have mastered both, I am still unsure. What do you think? 

I would love to hear your thoughts, you can reply with them to this email.

How to effectively learn languages

Related to learning new languages I also fell down a rabbit hole on effective language learning. The combination of my previous thoughts about languages and my loose plans for a trip to South America inspired me to try to begin learning Spanish. Something that I have thought about for a long time. It is common among my friends to jump onto Duolingo when trying to learn a language. It is surely beneficial, I have done it myself, but I never get too far. I felt like there must be a more effective way to learn languages. That is when I came across the video below.

Steve Kaufmann a polyglot on how to learn languages

Steve Kaufmann is a polyglot (defined as "speaking or writing several languages" or someone who is multilingual) who makes a lot of videos on language learning. Steve recommends focusing on "language acquisition" instead of the traditional way of learning languages. Inspired by the linguist Stephen Krashen, Steve recommends that one should focus on comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by a listener/reader despite not understanding all the words and structures in it. It means consuming language that is slightly above your level of language to force your brain to naturally begin to recognize the pattern of a language. The idea is that this will enable a learner to more naturally pick up additional languages similarly to how children learn to speak.

I am not entirely convinced of this concept, but it felt like as good a place as any to begin my journey to learn Spanish. To practice I try to watch YouTube videos based on comprehensible input in Spanish like the ones from Dreaming Spanish and try to read simple Spanish texts online. However, I also went out and borrowed a Spanish textbook used in teaching Spanish at university from the university library at Gothenburg University. Total side note but it is crazy how much knowledge and information in books is available freely through libraries. I will update you all on my Spanish progress in a few weeks. To get a grasp of my level I can say that my one year of Spanish lessons in sixth grade, 15 years ago are not coming back to me very quickly so I am starting from square one. My goal is to become somewhat conversational in Spanish this year so that hopefully I can hold a conversation in Spanish on my hypothetical South America trip in 2025. Wish me luck.

I hope you found this an interesting read and I would love to hear your feedback if you have any. Have a great week!