While skimming through Pinterest one day, I came across this beautifully written excerpt of the benefit of knowing other languages and it reminded me of the motivation on why I started learning in the first place. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a God-given talent for languages.. at all. I was born into Mandarin Chinese; but I would say that I am the most proficient in the English language as I moved to America when I was three years old. I’ve taken Spanish classes all throughout high school and college and started taking French classes in 2019, but I wouldn’t say I’m ‘fluent’ in any of those. Although I lack fluency in those languages, I have experienced the building of bridges and the unexpected friendships with people in other countries that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
One of my memorable experiences was when we visited Normandy (France) back in June 2019 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day event. I had just started beginner French classes that year and I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to use the language. For those who know me, I’m a perfectionist so I knew the opportunity would unexpectedly spring up at me and I wanted to be as best prepared as possible (which is not how any of that works). I would watch Brian casually stir up conversations with the cab drivers while stumbling on words that he did not know and secretly wished I was as brave as him when speaking another language in real life. Surprisingly, the cab drivers responded to us favorably and one even gave us a discount for the ride!
We walked around Caen on one of the days to explore the city and to visit some of the shops downtown. The entire town of Caen was decorated with the American, Canadian and British flags to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day event. I was starting to get hungry and we saw a small Vietnamese restaurant and decided to stop to have some lunch before we continued our exploration. The restaurant was owned by a French-Vietnamese couple; and I could tell the husband kept looking over at us with interest. He eventually walked over to us and asked ‘Chinois?’ He had asked me if I was Chinese. I was overjoyed that I actually understood what he had asked me in French! His wife quickly shooed him away telling him to leave us alone so we could finish eating.
We could tell that he was yearning to talk further with us, so we started a conversation with him after we paid for the meal. We learned that he was half Chinese and half French and his wife was Vietnamese, and he had been taking classes to learn Mandarin Chinese. We stayed another 45 minutes even after the restaurant closed for their mid-afternoon break talking to them about Caen, the D-Day event, their life in France, and how they wished to visit New York City someday. When we struggled with speaking French, we would switch over to speaking Mandarin to continue our conversation. At last, we had to say our goodbyes and wished them well as we continued our exploration of the Caen.
The best people I’ve met in my life are always the experiences I took a chance on, that I never expected to meet and at the places I never expected to end up at. I still smile when thinking of the time when we were at the train station in Naples (Italy) trying to get help from someone to find which train to board to get to Pompeii and barely knowing any Italian. We met so many helpful people along the way on that day. From the Italian train station worker who wanted to be helpful and struggled to understand what we were asking to the passenger (who did not know any English) on the train who reached out to the passenger sitting next to me (who he knew spoke some English) to ask her to make sure we were not lost. I can’t even count the number of times where language has brought a memorable experience or a friendship with a stranger.
So I agree, we should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.