Learning Other Languages

​Business is Business     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage

Have you ever known someone that was just an unbelievable sponge for languages? Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for learning any language with ease; referred to as polyglots and often characterized by their ability to quickly and accurately pick up the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of a new language. They can switch between languages with ease and often have a deep understanding of the cultures associated with the languages they speak.

Yeah, I hate ‘em all, too. Don’t get me wrong. Over the years, I have learned enough to understand languages some so I could at least order from a menu, find out where the bathroom is, and ask “how much for the both of you?” in16 languages. Okay, that’s a lie. I learned more than the basics, but it was difficult for me even when immersed in a country and baptized under fire.

While some people may have a genetic predisposition to language learning in the old Darwinian battle of heredity versus environment, I believe much of learning another language can be attributed to one’s interest, motivation, exposure, immersion, and possibly some uncommon learning strategies or just plain old cognitive flexibility. In the end, those of us who need to acquire a second language for business or similar, hold these unique polyglots in great respect.

I have read a number of studies explaining why it may be easier for children than adults to learn foreign languages due to differences in brain development and learning strategies. We as Americans learn our “native” English a grade level at a time, each year building on the last, and I have to believe other countries generally learn their first language the same way. However, with the possible exception of past generations of French speakers, Americans are the only ones arrogant enough to believe everyone should speak English no matter where we go (but that’s getting into a tangent subject).

Here is the reason I bring all of this up. While I traveled for 75% of my business life, where guns and knives were frowned upon and I only had words to defend myself, I was always curious about how and how much my foreign associates learned and understood other languages. For example, I worked with a Flemish man once who learned English by watching old American westerns on television. He said “I reckon” quite a bit; a unique perspective, indeed. I found myself falling into a John Wayne drawl the more I talked to him.

So I started thinking. I had Latin in high school, more useless than algebra in daily life, and German in college. Why Latin you ask? I had a reason at the time, but it wasn’t to join the priesthood. I never like kids all that much. Okay, enough stream of consciousness. We took these languages for two years each, so we didn’t have the advantage of the slow burn learning process of a grammar school education.

How much did we actually learn of those languages during such a short, immersive timeframe? In my particular business world, we interacted mostly in English because I was an uneducated heathen or through brilliant translators to expedite communications. I greatly admired anyone who learned another language at any level, but it was important for me to use basic words when speaking with associates using their second or third language.

For example, I spoke with a Japanese company whose meeting members had learned English to expand their business reach. I was talking about a stable computer environment when one man stopped me to ask, “What does a horse barn have to do with a computer system?” Lesson learned. Way more than a few English words have multiple meanings, as I’m sure words in other languages too. It dawned on me that we all seem to learn one meaning for each word (not talking about fluent or polyglot speakers) up to the point when we release our second language skills into the world.

They may have been there, but I don’t remember learning more than one meaning for one word in either Latin or German. Language is a fascinating subject for me. What do you all think? I would love to hear your perspectives. Thanks!​

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