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Why Being Multilingual Has Enriched My Life and Career

Updated: Apr 10

I am delighted to share my experiences of different languages. I am grateful for having learned French and Spanish in high school. Our Spanish teachers reminded us that we were learning Spain's Spanish. This became quite useful as I traveled because it gave me the understanding that my pronunciation might sound different elsewhere and it was. When I traveled to France recently, I was able to retrieve some of the French I learned and navigate my way as I traveled. I was much better in French than Spanish. In fact, I was so passionate about the French language in my teens that I found myself thinking in French rather than English.

When I arrived in Canada and traveled to Quebec, I encountered a stumbling block. The Quebecois French was very different from what I was taught. If I was in a business meeting, I could understand what was being said. When Quebecois was spoken socially, I was lost. It was not the accent, but the dialect I couldn't understand. All was not lost. I continued to be exposed the French language at work. From the beginning of my underwriting career, I was put into the French team. Although I could not speak the Quebecois French, I learned to read medical reports and documents in French. This became a great asset in my career. I would eventually lead the team with the French business.

Portuguese has been a bit of stumbling block for me. My experience of this language has been similar to a game of snakes and ladders. When I thought I was moving forward, I slid down the ladder. I've had a unique experience as we traveled around the 200+ places in Portugal and Brasil over 2 years, I got lost in the dialect in each place we visited. It's very diverse. In Lisbon, I found the enunciation clear. In northern Portugal, God help me. I could not decipher a word. It sounded as if they were eating their words and they spoke very rapidly. In the central region where we stayed for about a month, I went to a restaurant to pick up our lunch order. I thought I was clear in what I was saying, but the woman at the take-out counter looked at me as if I had three heads, when I said in Portuguese "My husband, Ernest, ordered our lunch." Honestly, I felt defeated because I gave it my best shot, repeating myself several times. I know now from hearing expats speak Portuguese that if we use our natural accents to speak the language, it isn't always clear. Our English accents doesn't always adapt well to some of the Portuguese words. I also found the more I tried to learn and speak Portuguese, the more my Spanish and French language skills came in like a flood to the forefront of my mind. In Brasil, I found it easier to understand. I don't know if it's because the Brasilian Portuguese has a rhythm to it that was easier to my ear. However, I had the same issues of varying dialects by region.

For the first 2 years of being in Portugal, I was learning Brasilian Portuguese from an online program. I realized after some time that the program didn't help me to string sentences together and this was a big problem in being able to move forward. I'm using another program now which is making more sense.

At one point in my travels, I stopped listening to what was being said around me because of mind fatigue. My mind became tired of constantly listening and trying to interpret what I was hearing. Remember, my travels were mainly for business meetings. I don't remember ever having the opportunity to sit with someone and have a basic social conversation in beginner's Portuguese. An acquaintance sensed my dismay and told me about his experience of being in the United States and hearing only English, which he was not fluent in speaking. He said, at one point, he too stopped listening because his mind could not take it anymore. He used to be happy to return to the solitude of his hotel room to give his mind a break. I thanked him for sharing this. I was at the breaking point of foreign language fatigue and he made me feel better. I also didn't realize that at times I naturally stopped listening when it was too much to translate.

When I returned to Canada, English was like a symphony to my ears! Bring it on! I enjoyed hearing it so much, the next morning I sat in the hotel lobby for a long time to simply hear people speak the language all around me. Like a great cup of coffee, I was relishing it. I had an experience shortly afterward that would impact my life forever. A woman walked into a restaurant where I was having lunch. It was obvious she didn't speak English fluently. She was trying to order something. Whatever she was trying to express, her server could not understand. I saw the frustration and sad look on her face. She walked out after trying for awhile. A minute after she left, the reality of her struggle hit me. That was me in different countries. I realized that I could have helped her with one of my translation apps, if I knew which country she was from. I've learned not because someone has a phone means that they have a phone plan in that country. I'm now sensitive to this and try to help when I can. Sometimes I imagine what it might really be like for someone to learn English with the variety of accents and dialects spoken today.

Life is teaching me to continue to learn the basics of languages of countries I am visiting. In 2022 we took a short vacation to Greece. I spent a few of weeks learning some of it and enjoyed it. I was able to use the salutations and pick up the odd word being spoken around me. I also enrolled in Hebrew at one point. Now that engaged me on a different level, reading and learning to write from right to left instead of left to right. People appreciate it when you take the effort to speak a little of their language.

Foreign travel for any purpose should encourage a person to learn a little or a lot about other languages and cultures. If I had the opportunity to return to my high school and speak to the young ladies who might not find French and Spanish so engaging nor useful, boy, would I have a story to tell them and to encourage them. You never ever know where life might take you and how valid the need for a foreign language might be.

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