Everyone has prejudices — even those of us with the best of intentions. Our brains are hard-wired to make quick decisions, which often results in us putting things into neat (often inaccurate) boxes. That quirk of evolution might explain why we’re so easily susceptible to prejudices, but it’s still no excuse for letting them influence how we treat others. In a globalized world, we increasingly come in contact with people from other cultures who behave differently than us. There are many things that aren’t necessarily better or worse in another culture — they’re just different — and these kind of prejudices can be solved by learning a language.
The mechanism is self-explanatory: When you understand a language, you also understand its speakers better. A multilingual worldview expands understanding beyond the languages that you speak: The more you experience and the more you’re exposed to other perspectives, the easier it is to apply your knowledge and your new worldview to a multitude of situations. Here are some of the ways learning a language can change your thinking.
Before we explore how learning a language might reduce our prejudices, let’s make something clear: This article isn’t about pointing fingers or pretending that I myself am free of prejudice.
1. ‘How Impolite!’
Germans sometimes have the reputation of being impolite and a bit too direct. But that’s just looking from an English-speaking perspective. When you start to get to know another language and culture, it quickly becomes clear that there are polite and impolite people everywhere, but they live in the context of their culture. In different cultures, there are different social and linguistic codes for being polite.
So, your British or American boss might not directly say that she’s unhappy with your work, but she still finds a way to say it. It’s just packaged in a special way that’s common in your culture. Learning another language helps sharpen your understanding not to take direct feedback personally. Or when a “yes” is really just an indirect “no.”
2. ‘Wow, That Sounds Really Aggressive!’
“Russians are so aggressive. They always sound like they’re yelling at you.” This prejudice also disappears in no time when you learn a new language. It quickly becomes clear that other languages have different melodies and sounds that can sound harder, softer, more sing-song or more clipped. We promise that German, Russian, or any other language doesn’t sound aggressive when you get to know it!
3. ‘They Talk So Loud!’
Every culture and language also has its own decibel level. With some, it’s completely normal to broadcast yourself loudly, even if you’re talking to just one person. When you learn another language and start speaking it better, you’ll quickly notice that you also take on another role in the other language — and this role could be louder or quieter than you usually talk in your own language.
4. ‘They’re Such Flirts – And Very Touchy’
In other cultures, there are different approaches to physical contact. And yes, it can be very, very surprising to be greeted suddenly with a kiss on the cheek when you don’t expect it. On the other hand, you can stumble into your own faux pas, like if you offer your hand to someone whose culture doesn’t normally do handshakes.
That’s why it’s important to not only learn a language from a grammar book. However you learn a language, whether it’s with a teacher or by studying alone, make sure to learn the cultural aspects along with the linguistic ones. The most important thing is to talk with people in your new language to understand their cultural practices. So don’t be shy!
5. ‘They’re Not Very Smart’
You’ve probably witnessed this one before: someone speaking with an accent, or making small grammar mistakes, being treated as if they aren’t intelligent. But it’s only people who have never tried to learn another language that can really have this prejudice. Anyone who’s tried to learn a language as an adult quickly recognizes that you often can’t find or remember the right words in the moment — so little mistakes are inevitable.
It’s extremely frustrating when you can’t express yourself correctly, especially when communicating in your own language is so easy. But there’s a silver lining: When someone speaks a language with mistakes, it still means that they speak it a little. And speaking one-and-a-half languages is always better than speaking just one!