Learning a foreign language revealed a world I never knew existed

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a perspective on the benefits of learning and speaking a foreign language.

Lauren Collins is a correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine, and she brings us the latest installment in our series IMHO: In My Humble Opinion.

LAUREN COLLINS, The New Yorker: (SPEAKING FRENCH)

What I just said is that, five years ago, I didn't speak a word of French. And why would I have? I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. In high school, I took Spanish, and like a lot of people who take high school Spanish, I failed to retain much more than "hola" and "gracias" and, "habla Inglés?"

I guess at the time, it didn't seem all that important. But I have come to believe that learning a foreign language is a quietly revolutionary act and that there's never been a better time to do it.

My French revolution started when I met a man named Olivier at a party. Besides the fact that we were both living in London, we had exactly zero in common, but somehow we got to talking and neither of us wanted to stop. Olivier spoke beautiful English, so it wasn't a big deal that I didn't speak his language.

But then things got serious, and we got married. And I told his mother I had given birth to a coffee machine. And we moved to French-speaking Switzerland, and eventually it became clear that I was going to have to learn French.

I signed up for an intensive class. My fellow students came from all over the world, Germany, Argentina, Japan. The funny thing about French classes, they're the one place that, by definition, you're never going to find someone who speaks French.

But I kept at it. We all did. And, very slowly, I found myself getting the hang of things. One day, something clicked, and I heard my husband's voice for the first time.

There are so many advantages to learning a language. Being bilingual improves your memory. And several studies have suggested that it may even stave off Alzheimer's and dementia.

But, for me, most incredible thing was being all of a sudden privy to a parallel world I hadn't even known existed, a world in which there was a word for a person who got cold easily, where a man's shirt was feminine, but a woman's shirt was masculine, where there wasn't just one past tense, but two.

Each time, I had to decide whether a person was a vous or a tu, an acquaintance or an intimate, which is to say basically every time I encountered someone. I felt my boundaries shifting, my relationships being recategorized into public and private.

What if, in this moment of rising intolerance, nationalism and xenophobia, we could all put ourselves in another person's tongue?

When you learn a language, you benefit not only yourself, but also society. Botching conjugations and brandishing your ridiculous accent, you develop empathy. You start to see that the world looks different, depending on where you stand and what you speak.


This essay was adapted from the book, "When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins.

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