The Empowering Effects of Learning a New Language

An interesting thing happened to me recently while shopping in our local SuperMaxi in Salinas, the popular beach town on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. I was in the spice aisle, and another shopper asked me a question. “Lo siento, no entiendo,” I said, as I didn’t understand what she had asked. When she repeated the question, I suddenly realized the source of my communication problem: she was speaking English!

In the four years my wife, Rita, and I have lived in Ecuador, this was not the first time something like this has happened to me. I’ve had tourists come up to me and ask, “Do you speak English?” and I automatically reply, “si, claro!” (yes, of course). Also, when we visit the States now, it takes me days before I stop automatically greeting people with “Hola!” or “Buenos dias.” And “gracias” never seems to go away.

There are lots of arguments for why it is good for your brain to learn new languages, especially if you are older. Some studies have preliminary findings that show it may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. I don’t know exactly how much it is helping my brain in any long-term way, but I do know that it has affected the way I think, and the way I feel about myself. I find communicating in a different tongue to be empowering, in an odd sort of way.

I have a long way to go with my Spanish, but it is nice to look back to a few years ago when we first came to Ecuador, and consider the progress. For example, over the last year or so:
• We’ve rented a car and explored parts of Ecuador with little or no expat presence.
• I’ve made changes in our utilities. This involved a visit to the office, and confirming information on the phone.
• I stopped by our local phone office to cancel landline service.
• I made an appointment over the phone with a vet, and tracked down a place to buy some meds for our dog.

It may not sound like much, but just two years ago, we would have had to hire an interpreter and/or driver to help us with all of that.

That’s what I mean by empowered. I feel confident to rent a car, and drive around the country. I can jump on a bus to La Libertad and find what I want, or ask for help finding it, and then discuss the purchase and price. It is a powerful way to become integrated with your new home.

And it is not a one-way street. When you try to talk with someone who speaks a different language, you are both engaged in communication at a much more involved and intimate level than when you talk in your native tongue. You study each other more closely, looking for cues in body language, facial expressions, and gestures. You concentrate more on what you are trying to say, and you listen more closely to the reply. If you start to talk to someone in a foreign language, no matter how badly you speak it, you can’t help but grow closer to them and their culture. It’s built into the process—and it’s a beautiful thing.

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