What I’ve Learned from Learning Foreign Languages



“A different language is a different vision of life” – Federico Fellini


Languages are much more than words. They are culture in a nearly tangible form. They are something you shape with your mouth, feel with your tongue and breath life into it with your own thoughts and ideas. We can read them, we can write them and when we analyze them, we see traces of the cultures that built them.


One of my favorite things about foreign languages are “untranslatable words.” A single word in one language which may take several words to demonstrate the same meaning in another, or sometimes even describe a feeling that is almost impossible to communicate otherwise. These words often say a lot about a language’s culture.


Gökotta – to wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing.


MångataThe road like reflection of the moon on a body of water.

Gökotta and Mångatta are two Swedish words, which do not have corresponding words in English. These words represent a Swedish culture where nature is cherished and enjoyed often. Allemansrätten or “Every man’s right” is a law in Sweden allowing citizens to travel on and enjoy nearly any land in the country, including private property. This also reflects the deep-rooted passion for exploration which can be traced all the way back to the Vikings who once inhabited Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia.


French is the language that turns dirt into romance” – Stephen King


Romances languages in particular have always had a way of making me feel a sense of passion in everyday life that English does not. In English I simply declare that “I like wine.” In Italian “Mi Piace il vino,” translated more literally as “Wine is pleasing to me.” In French “J’aime le vin,” or literally, “I love wine.” While both examples at surface value are no more than casual ways of expressing that I like wine, when analyzed and translated literally, it becomes apparent that these phrases and languages are based on a foundation of passion which can be seen in the very cultures that utilize them every day. Once you begin to uncover the passionate roots of these languages, they taste just as good on your tongue as il vino does.



“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe



It wasn’t until I started learning grammar in Italian and French that I realized I knew nothing about English grammar. You would think I would know a decent amount about grammar, being an English major and all, but learning other languages is what ultimately opened my eyes to the world of grammar and how it works. I had never given any thought to how future tenses in English worked until I was introduced to the French Futur Proche and hadn’t given any thought at all about past tenses in English until I had to learn how to differentiate between the Italian Passato Prossimo and Imperfetto. Once I began to learn Italian and French academically, I realized just how much I have always taken my native language for granted, carelessly spitting out sentences and phrases that I had given little effort to construct.



One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith



It’s not until you begin to learn a second or even third language that you begin to realize just how intertwined most languages really are. Anyone who knows more than one romance language knows that because of their Latin roots, there are many similarities between words. Just the same as anyone who knows more than one Germanic language, can see the links between those.


Along with seeing the similarities between languages, once you really begin to understand another language you can’t help but notice the staggering differences as well. There are beautiful things you can say in one language that would make absolutely no sense translated in another or would become very dull. This is where beauty is lost in translation.


That idea alone may not be enough to make you run out and learn a new language, but it’s discoveries like this that make language learning so addicting to me. All it takes is one perfect sentence and that’s enough to spark a passion for learning a new language, a process which ultimately lasts a lifetime, because you are never truly finished learning a language even if it is your native tongue.



“To have another language is to posses a second soul.”  




Learning foreign languages has changed me as a person. It has changed my view of the world and the people and cultures within it, but it has made me a more intelligent person as well.


Languages have taught me to love learning. They have taught me persistence, for like Rome, my Italian vocabulary was not built up in a day. French, Swedish, and Mandarin have taught me that my mouth is capable of making sounds that I previously did not even known existed. But most ironically, foreign languages have taught me more about my own than any English class ever could have, and their cultures have helped me understand my own more than I could ever have hoped to.


As I start to brush up on my Italian, which has suffered greatly after nearly two years of neglect, I think about the future and how much more I will learn in Verona. It truly is exciting to know that I’ll be submersed in a foreign culture and language, one that my own grandparents were born into, but was lost along the way to assimilation. Even though foreign languages have and always will be a little strange and sometimes very confusing to me, they will always be a part of who I am, and so they will always make me feel at home no matter how far they take me.


Thanks for reading!


What’s your favorite foreign language/culture or untranslatable word?





19 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Learning Foreign Languages

  1. benvenuta a bordo del treno WP. i wish you a pleasant journey 😉

    untranlatable words?
    “blasé” from french; “groovy” from english. both suggest atmospheres and nuances of mood and attitude to life, eh eh

  2. Enjoyed reading your post Ava…I have been learning Mandarin for over five years and what I love learning the most is the history of the characters…amazing..but frustrating when there is no (well for me) way of remembering the character apart from practice, practice and more practice..some words you can remember because for example ‘man’ is a character comprised of ‘field’ and ‘strong’ so you can remember that…others as I said nothing to bring on a memory!!!

    1. Thanks for reading! I believe I found you through your “war on plaid” post, I’m always interested in anything involving Scotland!

  3. Thanks for your refreshing post Ava. Its really great to know that you are exploring language land. I have been travelling through Biblical Greek and Hebrew land for about 10 years and eating and drinking the milk and honey.

  4. I’ve learned a lot from learning foreign languages too; teaching a foreign language even more so. These two things, I’d say have changed my life, actually. I think my favorite quote is this Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

    1. Thanks for reading! And sharing that quote, I love it and I think it’s especially true with learning a foreign language!

  5. I whole-heartedly agree that you only truly begin to understand the mechanics of your own native language once you begin learning a new one. It was when I started learning French that I fully understood that ‘to’ (preposition) and ‘to’ (part of the infinitive form) were different words. Same as ‘too’ and ‘too’ 😉

    A little spelling correction: mångata (one ‘t’) mån = moon; gata = road.

    My favourite “untranslatable” Swedish words are “att hinna” = to have sufficient time to make it: att orka = to have enough energy to do it. Example: Jag orkar inte gå upp i tid för att hinna tåget. = I don’t have enough energy to wake up in time to make the train.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! And thanks for pointing out the spelling error and sharing some untranslatable words with me 🙂

  6. This is beautifully written and on a topic that is just so interesting. I talked a little about two untranslatable words in my post on the basics of hot chocolate- hygge and sobremesa. If you could check it out and let me know what you think, I’d be really grateful!

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