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Encompassing cultural diversity with a universal language

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

✦ December is Learn a Foreign Language month and it is a brilliant opportunity to celebrate the rich diversity that is all around us. That multicultural diversity is our universal language.

Proud to be Singaporean

If it's one thing that I'm incredibly proud of as a Singaporean, it's having grown up in an environment that was, and still is so rich in cultural diversity. We grew up hearing several languages around us. We had neighbours, friends, classmates of different ethnic groups, we got to celebrate the most important festivities of each of these groups (yes, it's like celebrating several new years across the entire year!) and it felt completely natural to us. We are able to fully embrace the differences in our cultures, and to share the richness of our cultures with one another.

And for those of us who love to eat, growing up in a multicultural environment meant we have access to the culinary delights of ALL the cultures! That is one (g)astronomical luxury!

Teaching English in Spain

I have been teaching English in Spain for the past 17 years and so December as Learn a Foreign Language month is special to me. When I first came to Spain I did not speak a word of Spanish. Ultimately I learnt the language simply by being immersed in it. I took a couple of Spanish lessons in an academy but my best teachers were the little Spanish kids in a school where I was teaching English summer camps and in the nursery. They accepted whatever smattering of Spanish I had, there was no judgement, except for one little boy in particular who would roll his eyes and sigh when I made a grammar mistake. It amused me and it also made me want to get my language right so he would stop doing it!

Teaching English in the financial district of Madrid | Brilliant-Online
Teaching English in the financial district of Madrid

What I appreciated about the Spaniards was how they simply accepted the level of Spanish I had, they never put me down for it, they tried their best to communicate with me, and I realised that was actually a very generous and open act that allowed me the freedom to make mistakes and simply try. And therefore learn the language.

What I also loved was how some Spaniards would just keep speaking to me as if I understood them, and I spent a lot of time simply smiling and nodding my head when I had no idea what they were saying. It didn't really matter in the end as it helped me to feel like a part of their community. They were never judgemental about my level and they were determined to have a good time with me whether or not I understood them!

AMSA celebrating Friendship, Multiculturalism and Excellence

The Australian Malaysian Singaporean Association Inc. (AMSA) is a great example of how multiculturalism can really thrive in our communities. As Australia commemorates 50 years of Multiculturalism this year, and being one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world, it is apt that AMSA has made the theme of their Annual Dinner 2023 one of celebrating Friendship, Multiculturalism and Excellence.

English as a lingua franca

So for English speakers out there, you may ask, why learn a foreign language when English has been the lingua franca and probably will continue to be for a while? Furthermore, we have DeepL and subtitles on Netflix, and with technological advances I won't be surprised if one day we'd all be fitted with some invisible earpiece that can immediately translate any language straight into our ears. As someone who loves learning and teaching languages, I am not wild about that level of technological breakthrough though!

There are many benefits to learning a foreign language, and those who are lovers of languages will understand perfectly that learning a foreign language goes beyond mere words and syntax. It's an art, a sort of music, and there's so much culture, history and experiences embedded in a language. No machine can adequately transmit all of that richness.

A little goes a long way

Having spent all these years teaching English in Spain, I have to give the Spaniards credit for trying their best to learn English, for business or to get better career opportunities. It is an added pressure for many to have to attend English classes on top of a heavy workload that is bordering dangerously on burnout nowadays. It somewhat takes away the enjoyment of really learning the language as it feels like an obligation, if they want to 'get ahead'.

My students share their concerns and frustrations with me in their language learning experience, and for what it's worth, I hope English native speakers who work with non-English speakers can show a bit of grace and understanding if you see them feeling uncomfortable.

Try learning a foreign language, and you'll appreciate it a lot more when someone else makes the effort to learn yours. For English speakers out there, even if you learn a phrase or two of another language and show you're not afraid to have a little laugh with the other person at yourself, it can go a long way to helping the other person ease up. Humour helps bring catharsis, and that momentary relief can mean so much to the non-English person trying their best to speak English with you.

Working with different cultures | Brilliant Online

Why learn a foreign language

Those of us who are lucky to be doing it out of interest and passion will know the joy of understanding one word, then figuring out a chunk of words and finally being able to make out a full sentence gives such a mega dopamine boost it keeps you coming back for more.

Here are three reasons why it's beneficial to learn a foreign language.

1. It makes you more creative.

According to the World Economic Forum, one of the most in-demand skills in the future is Creative Thinking. Learning a foreign language engages the creative part of your headspace. You not only learn the analytical aspects of a language but also the culture and history of the place where the language is spoken. It helps you to see the world with different perspectives. This mere change of vision can help make you more flexible in your mindset which is a key quality in being creative.

Learning a foreign language means you have to find a different way of understanding why words are put together in a different way, which is very stimulating for the brain. It means you learn to take a potential issue or problem, understand it from different angles and ultimately come up with more solutions to resolve it.

To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. – Chinese Proverb

2. It expands your career options.

One could say increasingly we're living in a multicultural world and not just a multicultural country. Companies have branches in different countries and outsource services to various places. The need for employees who can manage different languages is a huge plus. If you have already learnt another foreign language, it already greatly increases your capacity to learn another. So if you are given an incredible promotion opportunity to work in another country, the language of that country won't be a deterrent as you'll be willing to pick it up.

Having various languages under your belt is a way to stand out from the crowd amidst the vast array of CVs that companies receive. Many companies have an international department which will require people who are comfortable working among different languages. In general, those who are proficient in more than one language are high in demand as they are seen as better communicators, being more sensitive to languages.

3. It stimulates the brain.

It's like gym training for the brain. Our brains love getting a good mental workout. It keeps it fresh and juicy. While many may groan at having to learn grammar, the effort you spend doing that helps your neurons create new pathways, the brain gets stronger each time you use it. According to scientists, we use our left brain when speaking our native language, but when it comes to the next language, we use both sides of the brain.

Research shows that learning foreign languages can help stave off diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia to a later age. Maybe it's time to dust off that old French coursebook and have a go at parler français.

In our digital revolution age, it is even more important to consciously proactively do activities that stimulate the brain. When was the last time you memorised phone numbers or someone's birthday? With smartphones and Facebook birthday reminders, we are using less and less of our gray matter.

Also, with the constant bombardment of social media all around us, we are losing our ability to hold our attention. We swipe away videos before we've even finished watching it, and we scan through a post and immediately scroll down and don't even remember what we read. Our attention span is reducing and learning a new language can help prevent this from getting worse. It makes the brain stay focused. When you speak two languages, if you need to toggle between them, your brain actually needs to really concentrate.

Make it FUN!

Children pick up new languages easily, not just because they're young and have brains like sponges. The key point is they are not always aware they are learning something new, and very often it's done in a spirit of fun and games. And lots of singing!

If you are inspired to learn a foreign language this December, why not do it in the spirit of openness and fun too! If you can find someone who speaks that language to encourage you and converse with you, that's even better.

I have been learning Hungarian for the past three years, and while it is known as a notoriously difficult language to pick up, it helps put me in the mindset of a student, which really helps in my job when I'm teaching. The fact that it is a challenge makes it a very humbling experience. Thanks to technology, you can learn a language regardless of where you are in the world.

I found a Hungarian learning platform called Hungarize and started with a teacher there, learning a bit every day and using tools such as Zoom to have online conversations, and even using WhatsApp to make videos to send to each other about topics we're interested in, and using Google Docs to keep a record of our notes and corrections. Even when I go on holiday I can continue learning and there's also a whole online community of other students I can interact with. I plan to continue learning so I can keep my gray matter well muscled! In fact, I already have my retirement plan all mapped out - I will be busy learning all the languages I'm interested in, anything from Greek to Russian, or even Sign language to Morse Code!

"We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly." – Kató Lomb (Hungarian translator, and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world who worked professionally with 16 languages)

Ultimately, whatever language we speak, there is a universal language we all understand. We all smile, laugh, cry and love in the same language.

Why not have a little potluck this December to celebrate Learn a Foreign Language month with all your friends and family from various cultures and not just acknowledge but also celebrate the miracle of different cultures being able to get together, partake of beautiful food and simply have a good time with one another?

Here are some recipe ideas for you to make this a truly international potluck!

And not forgetting something for our pets too!



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1 Comment

Jan 17

Using English as a universal language helped me a lot during trips abroad. Especially it saved me when I had to write a nursing essay. That's when nursing essay examples from became my treasure troves of diverse writing styles. I learned how to adapt my voice to different contexts, enhancing the versatility of my academic writing.

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