Not too long ago the world, to many, seemed a very large place. If you were living in Europe, it was almost unheard of to travel across to Australia and likewise, if you were living in Asia, it was quite unlikely that you’d end up in America.
However, with the invention of passenger airplanes, the increasing network of long-distance train and bus travel and the growing wealth of much of the first world population, it has now become easier than ever to cross the boundaries from one country to another and experience sights, sounds, smells and tastes that our ancestors likely only dreamed of.
This shift in the accessibility of all four corners of the globe has led to travel, for many, being turned from a rare and luxurious hobby to an actual lifestyle and means of making a living.
This has led to the creation of a number of ‘global citizens’ whose identity is now less likely to be characterised by distinct nationalistic traits and instead shaped by the adventures, countries and the people that they encounter throughout their journeys around the world.
Learning how to live as a global citizen is no easy feat. It requires courage, independence, strength of character and a persistent willingness to be challenged and learn. Yet it can be a very rewarding experience and it allows one to observe the world, its people and circumstances in a light that can at times be quite far removed from the average view.
Language often plays a huge part in allowing global citizens and travellers to acquire a uniquely rounded worldview. How this is and why it’s so useful is best summarised in the five points below.
#1 Language Helps Communication
Regardless of whether you have 50 pence or 5 million pounds stashed away in a bank account somewhere, as an expat or traveller all the money in the world is worthless to you if you don’t have a way in which you can communicate your basic needs.
You might need a hotel, food, to pay an electricity bill or simply to ask for directions, but getting those needs sorted becomes a whole lot easier if you know the language of the country you’re in.
That’s why you’ll often find that the cultivation of global citizenship starts by learning a new language. Learning how to speak a new language, even at a very basic level, helps communication immensely and it often is a starting point for building trust and finding respect with the native inhabitants of foreign lands, who can help make an alien place feel so much more like home in a comparatively short period of time.
#2 Language Encourages Cultural Understanding
When you learn to speak multiple languages, you learn to understand the world in many new and different ways.
Every language has a rich culture and history behind its creation and it is usually a good reflection of the culture that created it.
For example, in Japanese, Korean and German you actually have polite and impolite forms of speech, which teach you a lot about the hierarchy present within the individual societies and how relationships are built and maintained.
In Germany, if somebody asks you to address them using the casual form of “you” (du), for example, it’s a great indicator that you’ve potentially just gained a new ally and have a much better chance of reaching the ‘inner circle’ or friendship from here on out, if you so desire.
If they insist on using the formal version (Sie) on the other hand, then you know they’d like you to keep the relationship strictly professional and you’re probably better off finding someone else to be friends with.
You need to know these differences in order not to appear brazen or rude to your host country’s inhabitants though, which is exactly why multilingual global citizens often find it a lot easier to transition from one country to another, as they learn to efficiently pick up linguistic basics which aid them in understanding the new society they have entered.
#3 Language Aids Expression
If you learn how to think about language and culture in a varied way, the likelihood is you will also learn how to express your thoughts and ideas in a more multifaceted fashion.
This is not only a great tool for communication, as you’ll likely learn how to express yourself in a way that is understandable to a wider audience, but it is also likely that your own unique voice will be heard louder, more often and more positively in a new place as you learn how to use your words to paint others your ideas in an engaging and stimulating way.
Everybody likes a good story, and if you can learn to tell your stories in a way that encourages the creation of new friendships and helps you build rapport with those around you, then you’ll have learnt a skill that may serve you positively in many a lifetime situation and absolutely anywhere in the world.
Global citizens are usually full of stories, but an important part of what they do (or should do) is to dispel common stereotypes and allow those around them to see them for who they actually are. They are ambassadors of sorts who show that they are not just another ‘pesky foreigner’ who can’t make it back home or is negatively impacting local society.
#4 Language Builds Flexibility
When you learn new languages, you inevitably learn to view the world in a more rounded way as your vocabulary expands to encompass new ideas of perceiving the objects and situations around you.
Every language has peculiarities which create an image of understanding within the given vocabulary of that language. However, learning multiple languages helps add new context to a situation by allowing the language user to combine his or her contextual understanding from different languages into one whole and potentially trying to explain the situation to others using this knowledge.
Language, therefore, can be seen to help build flexibility in the comprehension of and reaction to new situations, which can serve one well in a new country.
To prove my point, when I first moved to Korea in 2008, I had a fully grown Korean man tell me I was a pig whilst I was cooking ramen noodles in the kitchen. I wasn’t all too happy about that and told him he was completely out of line for saying that too!
He didn’t speak any English though and my Korean wasn’t the greatest at the time, so after some reflection on his forlorn looking facial expression thereafter, I went to ask a Korean friend of mine why on earth he didn’t find that comment offensive.
Her reply? In Korea, telling someone they are a pig during food related activities is usually an endearing tease used between opposite genders when they like each other and not offensive in the least! Suffice to say, I was a little embarrassed at my previous reaction and made sure not to get upset when being called a pig in Korea thereafter…oopsie.
#5 Language Creates Opportunities
Finally, apart from the fact that people who learn languages at a young age learn new languages faster than their monolingual peers, it should not be underestimated how much multilingualism can help to create opportunities.
If you’re in a new country, but know some of the language already you are likely to gain a lot of brownie points from the locals for having put in the effort to learn the language and thus build up rapport and connections faster than might otherwise be the case.
If your known languages are widely spoken it is also likely that you can use them across the globe to hunt for jobs at a number of different destinations, which instantly increases job market opportunities and makes quick integration into a new society, a whole lot easier.
Furthermore, if you decide to stay at home or return home after your adventures abroad, languages can look great on your CV and give you a competitive edge over other applicants, as it shows your ability to learn and adapt and your skills might be something that the company needs and will even reward you for one day.
Language can, therefore, be considered a fantastic tool to increase global mobility, but its main strength in terms of global citizenship is its ability to make you feel at home anywhere in the world.
Communicating through language helps you connect to others who make you feel at home. Being able to fully express your thoughts and feelings in a new country allows you to be heard and valued. Flexibility in understanding aids the avoidance of unnecessary confrontation and the opportunities language can create worldwide means you are no longer necessarily limited to the restrictive situations within one country.
In the end, learning a new language can thus be seen as an amazing first step towards learning to enjoy and cultivate a true ‘global citizen’ lifestyle, which is sure to provide memories which you’ll never forget.
How have languages helped you in the past? Have you had any funny or interesting misunderstandings with language? How do you think it aids global citizenship? Feel free to write your comments below!