Keeping an open mind

There’s an interesting post over on fluentin3months about the importance of keeping an open mind when in foreign countries. Benny the Irish Polyglot explains how he found Parisiens arrogant, rude and unfriendly the first time he was in Paris, and how they were discouraging about his efforts to learn French. He became convinced that all Parisiens were like this and refused to accept any evidence to the contrary for quite a few years.

When he returned to Paris recently though, he was determined to get a good impression of the Parisiens, and found that when he tuned into their ways to doing things rather than expecting them to behave as people might in other countries, he got on with them much better. They have different attitudes to service, for example – the customer isn’t always right – and getting angry with people for not doing what you believe to be their job won’t help. Taking an interest in people also helps.

Keeping an open mind is useful not just when visiting a foreign country, but also when learning foreign languages. Each language has it’s own ways of doing things and of describing the world. They may be quite different to those in your native language, and may appear unnecessarily complicated, strange, ridiculous or even wrong to you. Perhaps this is because you’re not used to them. It helps if you approach such differences with an open mind and accept them, rather than trying to fight them. It may also help if try what Benny suggests – ignore difficult aspects of the language until you’ve learnt quite a bit of it and had quite a lot of exposure to it. Then when you try to learn them, they’ll seem more familiar and less scary.

When I was learning German at school I thought the case system was difficult and found it hard to learn. I didn’t really see the point of it or understand it either – why do you need so many different words for the (der, die, das, dem, den, etc) when English manages with just one, for example? Since then I’ve studied quite a few other languages, some with noun case markings, others without, and have a better understanding of how they work.

7 thoughts on “Keeping an open mind

  1. Thanks for sharing my link Simon!

    I agree that you can extend this concept to languages. Complaining about cases and asking “why” languages have to be so hard is pointless and will get you nowhere. It’s always better to just accept things as they are and work WITH them 😉

    I’m getting back into German now (for the next 3 months) and rather than cry about the different cases of “the”, I’ll just simply use them and appreciate them for making the language all that more interesting 🙂

  2. Language plays a very important role in the life of human beings. We use language from the moment we wake up in the morning till we go to bed at night.

  3. The best thing about learning new languages is the fact that all of them work in different ways. It just makes it that much more interesting. And when you realize something isn’t actually as different as you first thought, but rather a slightly different implementation of the same set of rules as in your own language, _that_ is what makes languages so awesome.

    Anyway, you could also complain about why English doesn’t have case endings, since they help you grasp the syntax and you can use word order to create subtle nuances. Articles and grammatical gender are to me totally redundant since my native language, Finnish, manages without them. However, like everyone else, I just have to live with them, if I want to get inside the mind of the language I’m learning 😉

  4. It doesn’t just apply to languages. As one of my teachers used to say, “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are always right”.

  5. Having studied a number of languages to varying degrees, I can say that experience indeed tempers this haste to criticize and suffer from differences and difficulties when studying foreign languages.

    German was one of the first foreign languages I studied (after Spanish, French, and Italian), and because my experience was limited and my standard fairly low (at least in terms of grammatical cases), the 4 German cases seemed difficult and tedious to learn. Studying other foreign languages, especially outside of the Indo-European family, raised my standard for difficulty and difference, and I began to see the case system as a distinguishing feature of German, rather than a defect or a point of criticism and frustration.

    I agree that keeping an open mind is important for getting the most out of foreign cultures and language, but unlike the openness of door which swings on a hinge and can opened and closed with little effort, the openness of a mind (at least my mind) is determined by experience extremes. I imagine that looking at the whole spectrum of human language, there is no right or wrong, no difficult or easy, just relativity.

  6. Gotta love the German case system! I have an interest in improving upon the German I know (which is not a lot) but I keep turning back to the first languages I fell in love with (Spanish and Portuguese) because when do you say “enough is enough, I’m fluent!”? Everytime I’ve tried that, I revisit my third love, Italian, where I’m at the intermediate level. Then French distracts me for a few days and the cycle of every 6 months or so starts over again.

    As for the topic at hand, I find linguistic differences are much easier to accept over cultural differences. With language, I feel like I’m trying to conquer something but with culture, I feel like I just have to accept what is.

    Many things are not bad nor good but different. Then again, some things actually are good or bad and just like those that are different, you must accept them in some form or fashion.

  7. I work at a place where there are students from approximately 50 different countries, often with 15-20 different nationalities coming together in one ESL classroom. Talk about linguistical and cultural challenges! The interesting part is that some nationalities are much more compatible with others, and as an instructor it’s so important to know which get along with which.

    I’ve certainly had to learn how to respect these cultural differences, even if I don’t always understand them.

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