Speaking a Different Language Can Save Your Life

The other day, I met a gentleman in his seventies who has been learning foreign languages all of his life.  He is writing a book on how he learned to speak fluently in 10 different languages.  While speaking with him, I suddenly felt the need to ask him to share some of his learning techniques.  I was totally impressed when he said that he learned 2,000 Chinese characters in less than half-a-year, especially when it takes Chinese people close to 12 years to learn them in order to read the newspaper.  He told me anecdotes of how being Irish and being able to speak fluent Chinese, Korean and Japanese have saved his life in different occasions.  I have found somebody to share some of my experiences while learning languages, and I was thrilled to meet such a smart man who came to my office to ask a question about editing.  He shared that even though English was his first language, he could identify better with certain words in various languages to communicate with his family.   I also shared with him that certain phrases had more of an emotional impact if I said them in a certain language. For the first time, I felt validated on my usage of words from other languages to express a thought.   For example, I use aiyaaa  wodemaya! when I am upset.  So, instead of saying the English oh my gosh, I always say aiyaaa wodemaya.   I say ven acá instead of come here or dígame instead of tell me because they sound more direct in my mind.  And then I remembered an event in an unnamed Latin American City, where I was totally overwhelmed by feelings of fear.  My husband and I were going to be mugged, and a “xiaoxin, xiaoxin” saved us from an attack from 2 thieves.  “Xiaoxin” means “be careful” in Chinese, and it was our secret phrase in case we were in a dangerous situation.  But what really saved us was the fact that I could understand Spanish perfectly.  I have heard the two thieves behind our backs planning their attack: one was going to get my purse, while the other was going to grab my husband’s camera.  When I told my husband xiaoxin, xiaoxin, we jumped into the subway train, and escaped misfortune.  If I would not have understood Spanish or had a secret word to escape, it would have been a very different and sad story.


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