Finding Freedom: Languages

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

Scott Ferguson - Finding Freedom in Language - Living Free(Above: Welcome sign in northern Laos.)

I love learning languages.  For me, it is fun, interesting, challenging, and rewarding.   In actuality, I am not a very fast learner of languages.  In the way some people enjoy to play golf or guitar with no intention to become a professional, I plod along with my languages because I enjoy them.  Slowly, I improve.

There is a freedom I gain from learning another language and it’s one of the things I like to do. While travelling, I know I can obtain food, a place to stay, and transportation.  I like to go where the locals go in order to understand a culture.

Of course, at times it can be comical.  Sometimes my precision in the language is lacking–I have boarded wrong buses, given taxi drivers wrong directions, mistakenly ordered fish heads for breakfast, and mixed up way too many verbs to recall.  Once, I became nervous and spoke gibberish inside a bank in Beijing; the poor teller stared at me unsure whether to laugh or cry because she was stuck helping this fool.  Laughing at myself and laughing with others is a good reminder not to take myself too seriously.

The ability to communicate outside of English makes me self-sufficient and gives me confidence in unfamiliar situations.  After not using my French for many years, I felt happy to still be able to read a menu written in French in Switzerland.  I’ve travelled around rural south Mexico and throughout Central American using my Spanish.  And in China, I have travelled thousands of miles and visited over 25 cities as well as rural villages.  The ability to read signs and menus in Chinese definitely helps.

How to Master Chinese
(Above: Stinky Tofu sign jokingly written as Chinese National Soccer Team Tofu.)

Sometimes I have jumped into situations while my language level was quite low, but with time I’ve learned to be confident and know I can make it through most situations.  Simply learning to count in Bahasa allowed me to barter in the markets in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Using Chinese, I exchanged currency on the black market in Laos and having learned to correctly say thank you in Thai rewarded me with a big smile and a glass of tea in Bangkok.

Besides travel freedom, languages have opened up to me many experiences which I couldn’t have had otherwise.  With language, boundaries often melt.  I have talked with peasant farmers in Yunnan, China, danced all night in a barrio of Panama City, Panama, and hiked a volcano with a former guerilla in Guatemala.  People who began as strangers have insisted to pay for my meals in Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and China because we were able to have simple conversations in their languages.

The ability to help others has been rewarding at times, too.  In London’s Heathrow Airport, I assisted a worried Spanish speaker to find her gate; in Kunming, China, I helped some lost German tourists; and in rural Laos, I translated for a Chinese businessman.  In Atlanta, I have used Spanish on a near daily basis to communicate with friends, co-workers, and contractors, as well as to visit delicious taquerias, cantinas, and restaurants.

Though I have not reviewed the research, learning another language probably is good for my brain, too.  Children learn language by listening and I’ve discovered I learn faster that way, too, instead of always trying to translate inside my head.  Of course, while learning a language, eventually some memorization is required and I’ve regained this ability to memorize (which had evaporated after college).

All in all, learning languages entertains, challenges, and opens up the world with a sense of wonder and freedom.  I didn’t enjoy learning languages until I was an adult, but I am happy to have discovered this joy.

Do you have something you study or practice which helps you feel free?

Scott Ferguson - Language Benefits
(Above: Menu on the wall of a small restaurant in Beijing–it’s all Chinese to me.)


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