This past summer, when I studied abroad in Paris, I went with very limited knowledge of French and an intermediate amount of Spanish (which is definitely not as useful). Before you say, “what a stereotypical study abroad student only talking about his time in Europe,” hear me out — I got an understanding out of it I didn’t really anticipate. In our program, we had the unique opportunity to live in home-stays for six weeks and be completely immersed in the French culture. Our homestay families would cook us dinner three times a week, question us about our day, introduce us to their traditions, tell stories about their lives and show us the best places to see around Paris.
I would say there were a lot of difficulties in adjusting to the French lifestyle, most importantly, the language barrier. Six months before the program, I decided that it would be extremely helpful to learn the basics of French because I definitely didn’t want to be one of those Americans that expected English to be spoken everywhere, so I began my journey in the great language app of Duolingo. Flash forward to June. Even though I had that 130-day streak of straight-up French, in which all I knew was the basics (which was still extremely helpful), being at a dinner table with a bunch of fluent French people and trying to understand every word of what was being said wasn’t something my feeble mind could envelop. I would spend all my time using whatever French knowledge I had and any words that sounded remotely close to Spanish or English to unscramble the conversation between my host family and their friends.
Over the course of the program, I would continue to struggle with understanding, but I also realized that there is more to learning language than trying to know every single word that someone says. To succeed, it helps to gather the main gist of what is being said, picking off words you know from the sentences to form some coherent idea. Through continuous practice, the words and phrases that initially made no sense will begin to click, and suddenly you gain new perspectives and appreciations toward others that you previously didn’t know.
To get to my main point: language is a form of understanding. It allows us to not only communicate with one another, but to connect and share our values such that we are mutually enhanced and changed for the better. To understand fully, we do not need to know everything. We just need to capture what’s important. When we act fearless by opening ourselves to new perspectives and taking the time to understand what’s important, we become stronger, better people that love everyone equally and let them live their truth without interference. When we judge without understanding, we get nowhere except an endless cycle of miserableness and passivity towards others’ issues.
Just as I opened myself to new experiences and perspectives abroad, we should be willing to see people for the things they love and the beauty and the appreciation that comes with everyone’s life. Language may connect us, but understanding fixates us on what is important: to love everyone and not let people tell you otherwise.
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The views expressed in this inside column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.