I have always loved learning new languages. I think languages and cultures are very connected which means when you learn a new language, a lot of doors open up to you. A lot of things start to make sense; like the way people who speak that language as their first language talk to each other, the way they use sarcasm, the way their politicians speak and why some of them sound more powerful than others. To put it short, you understand different countries or cultures in a much better way than you would have if you had to get everything translated for you. This was also one of the reasons why I decided to major in a foreign language when I went to uni: I was already fascinated with this language and I wanted to learn more about the entire, magical universe that I knew was somewhere in there. I could tell every time I visited the country; there was something that people there understood, and I wanted to understand it, too.
So I took my degree (for many other reasons too, of course). And did it give me the key to understanding that magical universe? To put it short, no. I think that’s one of the most important things I learned in school. You can read as many books as you want, practice your pronunciation and watch movies about historical events in a dark classroom on a Tuesday afternoon. But there’s something you will never be able to pick up, and that’s the feelings you will only get from your mother tongue.
It’s sort of like a name: it’s given to you before you’re old enough to decide whether you want that to be your name or not. Now of course we can all change our names when we get older, but nobody can change their mother tongue. We can learn as many foreign languages as we want to and we can learn how to speak them fluently; we may even get to a point where we can fool people into thinking we’ve been speaking that language our entire lives. But your mother tongue is a gateway to the deepest parts of your brain, and on some level it influences the way in which you think and express yourself. No matter if you don’t feel like it’s the most poetic language in the world, maybe, or if you don’t feel the flow when you use it for writing prose, it just does something unique. It touches memories directly. It’s like going grocery shopping and suddenly the supermarket you’re in is playing this old song that you used to listen to on repeat when you were with that ex of yours, and in the blink of an eye you’re back with them for a moment. You remember that their bedsheets were green and that their room smelled like vanilla and that, outside their window, this huge tree was always blocking the daylight. You don’t want to be back there, but you are. Even though you’re of course also standing in the produce section trying to find some nice avocados. Your mother tongue has you wrapped around its little finger in the exact same way and there’s nothing you can do about it. And I think that’s beautiful. Sometimes it will hit you where you are the most vulnerable, other times it will help you understand things better. Sometimes it might even make you feel stronger. No matter what, I think we should remember to appreciate what we already know and have as much as we appreciate learning new things and growing. These two things go hand in hand.