How learning Languages ruined my Life
This post was inspired from Phoenix Hou's video with a similar title and gratitude to the friend who sent me the video. Also, this as a humble tribute to the late Moses McCormick (laoshu505000) who passed away on March 4, 2021; his wonderful YouTube channel gave us inspiration in speaking various languages and breaking cultural barriers making foreigners feel at home.
I hated learning languages. Though, I lived in a multi-lingual country on the cross roads of multiple cultures. I, alongside many others living in my city, were exposed to countless languages and understood at least 3 growing up. But this did not lead me to develop any real empathy or understanding of those languages, it was just ‘fun’ to know a few words in Tagalog or Swahili or Urdu. A natural process of being exposed to them on a daily basis.
Growing up, I thought languages was just another ‘thing’ to learn and add to your CV for your job prospects. Languages, in my small world, became a soulless medium. It does not help how we were sold to learn some of the languages; we needed to speak good English to show we were colonised correctly, we needed to learn French to show our artistic knowledge, and maybe Italian or Spanish if we wanted to sound romantic. Nothing outside these languages was beneficial for your professional life (or sometimes even politically allowed). In fact we should also feel privileged that White people are learning our language.
This translated into our subconscious mind that there is no use in learning “lesser” languages. Of course, this (bad) exposure wasn't fair to the deep cultural beauty in every single languages around us.
It was natural for me to hate learning languages. Languages were sold to us as an end goal; to impress people, or to measure one’s own privilege and intelligence. Naturally all the pain was on the time, money and energy spent in learning a new language.
This pain though is so minute, it isn’t enough to ruin your life. It wasn’t until years later, after living and being frustrated that people couldn’t express correctly in my mother language or English that I realised:
Learning a new language is like wearing glasses for the first time.
Do you remember the feeling the first time you wore your new glasses? Or perhaps when you changed your camera’s lens, or used a new filter for your photos? You suddenly realised there was a new way of seeing the world.
This is the exactly how learning languages exposes you. You realise that you spent your whole life living through one pair of lens that is fixed on one view; your own. In your own language and from your own culture.
These “glasses” we choose to wear every day offers a comfortable truth that we are used to. The foundational beliefs through which we explain ourselves and everyone around us. But what we see through those glasses impacts on what we think and feel towards other people. And we never realise so until the day we truly pick someone else's glasses, when we start learning a new language; and the first thing you see is.. Your Ignorance.
Because ignorance isn’t Bliss.
In an age of an immense waves of information there is also growing mountains of ignorance. Ignorance is easy, we don’t need to change our glasses if we feel comfortable in it. It’s easy to consume what others have given us and want us to believe in. It’s so easy for us to defend our peace of mind and be “proud of their ignorance” (Quran 48:26).
But we need to realise; our minds are still affected by bigotry of the others. We still consume media and read articles that often lack in other lenses or perspectives. Also known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we tend to assume knowledge on a lot of the things after a short introduction from one article or documentary (or lately from a single forwarded WhatsApp message). We are so confident in our acquired knowledge that we: 1. Don’t know what’s better 2. Fear that anything else may exist.
This leads to stories like Telegraph’s “Iran trains ninjas as potential assassins” or “Thousands of Female Ninjas train as Iran’s Assassins” by the Reuters from an innocent random Iranian TV marital art show, ignorantly (or intentionally?) misreading feminism and women’s right in Tehran — link to a wonderful article explaining this view by Alex Shams.
As I started learning about the languages my friends spoke, my world was expanded to one beyond my prior knowledge, beyond my fear and prejudice of others, beyond everything I learned even from books or documentaries.
“As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”
— Albert Einstein
In other words, the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know. Languages introduced to us new knowledge. And knowledge isn’t something we are born into, it’s gained.
Knowledge, like many things on Earth, is unlimited. This strive for being knowledgable breaks your old life and paradigm apart. As we know more, we ask more. We get to ask better questions, we get to feel more emphatic towards the worries and anxieties of this new culture and language and listen their struggle to be heard and found. This breaks down our beliefs of the ‘others’, leading to a the realisation of our bigotry. It’s painful to be challenged, tormented, in this newly self-implemented confusion.
There is a word so perfectly describing this in Islam, an Arabic term that got annihilated by the news; Jihad — the strive against ones own prejudice and limitation. And the opposite of which in Islam is Jahiliyyah — intentional ignorance (similar to the legal term: willful ignorance). Ironically how both those words were assigned different meanings by ignorants because it’s “easy” to pick on a foreign term without truly understanding it. Jihad against your own beliefs and actions is referred to as the greater jihad. People will need spend their entire lives struggling against the beliefs ingrained within them that can harm both themselves and those around them, these (wrong) beliefs are built from years of natural consumption and interactions with other people. Bias and prejudice are part of the human nature, but it’s our actions that define us.
It’s a problem that we created virtual walls that our glasses can’t see other nations or people except ours. While the world struggled with the coronavirus pandemic, only a few ‘Western or Rich’ nations were highlighted for their response against it. Many, many success from countries across the Caribbean, Africa and East Asia were simply ignored. When Western leaders were advising to inject disinfectant or being proud of shaking hands with coronavirus patients, or reacting too slow; Ghanian president Addo, for example, sent a clear concise message to his people (in English). Then added another layer of communication through the fabric he wears during each addresses to confirm the seriousness of the situation — before any case was even recorded in Ghana!
This language and cultural bigotry exists in all of us and in all our cultures. No language is important or beautiful as your own language. Ibn Ḥazim sums it beautifully:
“Some people labor under the impression that their language is superior to all others. This makes no sense. The aspects of superiority are known: things are superior either by the work they do or by selection. But languages do not actually do work, and there is no scriptural testimony about the preference of one language over another. The Almighty says: “We have not sent a prophet except using the language of his community so he can explain things to them”, and also: “We revealed it only in your language in order that they may remember it”. With these words God informs us that He only revealed the Qur’ān in Arabic to make the Prophet’s community understand the message. Here, Galen was in error when he said: “Greek is the most superior language, because other languages resemble the barking of dogs or the croaking of frogs”. This is ignorant hokum. Anyone who hears a foreign language he does not understand regards it in the same way as Galen does other languages.”
— Ibn Ḥazm
It’s not until feeling empathy and true anthropological understanding of the language does your life gets truly ruined:
You become part of the tribe
As it’s said in Lebenese-Arabic, you start indulging in their worries (تاكل هم). You become an indirect member of this culture. You face their problems, understand their struggles, their oppressors.
People make fun of the Chinese for eating everything, but those same people don’t know the Chinese backstory under a communist famine that killed at-most 55 million in the 1960s. People blamed Somalian pirates for terrorising the seas around the horn of African, but they don’t know that Somalia economy depended on fishing. And due to a destabilised government (thanks to the US and USSR), 2.4 million tonnes of Somalia’s fish lost out to foreign industrial fishing fleets from Italy, Japan, Greece, Singapore, Egypt, the former USSR, and China. Nothing smacks of arrogance or condescension more than measuring culture using one’s own culture as the gauge. We need to understand the root cause for every strange action people do.
Learning languages makes you part of their tribe. A new tribe that you find is so similar to your own, just slightly more mixed. And the more languages you learn, the more tribes you inherit, you realize that all of those languages are tribes are mixed, none of them own 100% of their vocabulary, that every member of the tribe is a composite of different cultures and times of the people he grew up with and met, none of them is really “pure”. That there is no such thing as purely Western or Asian or Arabic or Islamic. All ideas, philosophies, art is mixed. A sense of new citizenship grows in you, not for the new tribe, but for the world itself. Beautifully explained by Edward Said in his commencement speech at the American University of Beirut in 2000:
A sense of citizenship and of critical awareness allows you to see the whole of human history as common enterprise, and not as a kind of Darwinian race for domination and supremacy. Cultures are neither commodities nor can they be owned like cars or shoes. They are in a state of continuing development and dynamic change, as well as maintaining constant interactions with other cultures.
This belief that we are partitioned by religion or cultures or race or lines drawn on the globe is but an imperial and nationalist thought created to divide and conquer us. Religions and cultures are more similar than they are divisive.
Once while driving through France with my mother and her new acquaintance that we were going to drop off, they were speaking about the core Advaita Vedanta (Hindu philosophy) doctrine. I overheard the acquaintance speaking to my mother that “they” believed in oneness of God called Brahman, and added that it was “not the Muslim God Allah”. I wish I spoke then, but this was also a misconception in Islam and the Arabic language.
Allah (الله) literally means in The God, with emphasis on his Oneness — So in a way this acquaintance was wrong assuming that Muslims pray to a “different God”, it’s the same God, but different way of belief and prayer. And the term ‘Oṃ Shanti’ chanted during their prayer also has similarities; Shanti means peace (just like Salam) while Oṃ is an added diphthongs (إدغام), a sound also recurring to one’s reading of the Quran (Tajwīd).
Arab Christians also refer to God as Allah, so does the Arabic-speaking Jewish communities. Allah itself is similar to the Jewish Elōah (אלוה) which is the proper name for God according to the Tanakh. Also similar to other semitic languages (which it etymologically originated from) such as biblical Aramaic term for God Elāhā or in Syriac Alāhā (ܐܠܗܐ). Those religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Bábism) are called Abrahamic religions for their same doctrine under one God.
There is so much things that make us similar instead of differencing us.
The Beauty in the new burden
O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware — 49:13
As cliché as it sounds, you find the beauty in diversity. Beauty in the new lenses you get. Beauty in knowing there is something beyond your limitation.
I remember vividly whilst visiting my Georgian friends I found a funny common word to shouted by a mother to her kid ‘sherval’ (pants) similar to Arabic. Or the common quirks in languages, such as in rural Oman when asked “how are you?” you follow it with “how is your goats and cows?” not too far from saying goodbye in Rwanda when you wish someone well “may you have a cow”. Or the similarity of Italian prego to the German bitte.
And during my early days of learning Turkish, knowing it was a Turkic language that was difficult and similar to East Asian languages; I passed by a term Kolay Gelsin (let it come easy) and it first it made no sense how to use it, until I realised Turkey also spoke Mediterranean, the same application of the Jordanian-Arabic term I learned which was Ya’atik al Afia (يَعْطِيكْ العَافِيَة) (may God give you health and all the good things) used to greet or end a conversation or appreciation for someone working.
And only a few months later while learning about the history of the Mongolian language I learned that East Asian languages use colours or animals for cardinal directions — and the Turkic language, a language closely related, had affected the geographical name of the most important seas around Anatolia on the Globe, without most of us knowing, I made this map of this hypothesis:
This new burden and knowledge both ruins our life and gives it colour. Not from learning the new language itself, but in actively understanding the lens that those people who speak the languages see from. And if we don’t learn all those languages to understand the others, we need to be more on-guard against our own prejudice —and actively be empathetic towards people of different cultures and languages.
At the end, you only ever need one language to speak to an individual; as I once overheard in Istanbul: a foreigner asking for an advice from a Turkish imam on his own struggle in finding a language to learn; the imam replied quoting a legendary Turkish rock musician;
The first language that a person should learn is ‘sweet language ’.
— Barış Manço