The Best Defense

Some side benefits of learning both a foreign language and a foreign culture

By Capt. Mark Jacobsen, USAF
Best Defense guest columnist

Here's a note from an Air Force pilot who is studying Arabic in Jordan.

A few months ago I wrote up a list of secondary benefits that come with learning a foreign language, based on my own experience learning Arabic. It's a bit long, but I hope it will be of interest.

How to listen to other people's stories and perspectives. Being able to shut up and really listen to different opinions is a rare skill. If we want to make informed policy in cross-cultural contexts, we need to humanize and understand the "other" -- which includes both our allies and our enemies. We do not have to agree with each other, but we need to listen long enough to genuinely understand each other's narratives. Being in a foreign language environment forces you to concentrate and listen, especially because you probably lack the language skill to respond as you wish.

How to operate in an environment of constant uncertainty. When you arrive in a foreign culture, everything is uncertain. You feel a constant tightness in your chest because you don't know the rules for even the most trivial day-to-day tasks. Even something as simple as buying hummus and falafel or riding in a taxicab involves new processes, rituals, and vocabulary -- especially if you want to do it like the natives. You can't be a perfectionist, because you'll never get anything done otherwise. You learn to control negative emotional responses like fear, anger, or frustration. Fortunately, you do acclimate to this uncertainty. You learn to be patient, cool, and observant.

How to communicate without a solid common language. The lingua franca of the world is not English; it is broken English. This only gets people so far, and in many contexts they fall back on a variety of second mutual languages to communicate. It's common for a multiethnic group to shift from one language to another as they try to communicate a point. Learning to communicate in this fragmented, multilingual manner is an important skill in its own right.

Not to take yourself too seriously. None of us like being made a fool of. But when you live in a foreign culture, there's no getting around it: you are the fool. You get ripped off. You make embarrassing cultural and linguistic mistakes. These experiences teach you to relax and to laugh at yourself. They teach humility. Anyone charged with crafting U.S. foreign policy should have a few of these experiences under his or her belt.

The limits of cross-cultural "expertise." If you're wise, you come to disdain the word "expert." I suppose there is such a thing as a cross-cultural expert, but few who claim the title really deserve it. It takes years -- probably decades -- of close work with another culture to really develop expertise. When you gain enough language to really penetrate the local culture, you realize how much is going on beneath the surface that you were previously blind to. You gain a healthy skepticism for reigning conventional wisdom about the culture.

The importance of local relationships. This is the corollary of the above point, and it is especially true if you can really immerse and avoid a supportive American network. You are utterly dependent on your local friends. This requires deep trust and humility, because you are constantly at their mercy. You quickly learn that you, as an American, are not the main actor in their country; you are a bewildered guest, and your success hinges on the strength and quality of your local relationships.

How to learn about culture and language. When you live in a foreign culture, you learn how to learn. You learn what vocabulary is important, what language learning techniques work, how to make relationships, what skills are important, what details to pay attention to. These skills will carry over to other languages and other cultures in the future.

The nature and unique dangers of translation. You learn that translation is not a mechanical science; it is an art. You learn what ideas translate directly and what do not. You gain an intuitive sense for the moment-by-moment decisions an interpreter must make, which can have serious impacts on the message. You learn how to communicate clear messages to an interpreter to increase the odds that they will be transmitted accurately.

How to speak clearly and directly. As a student of a second language, you learn a lot about communication. You learn to appreciate people who speak clearly, slowly, and in a direct way. You are frustrated by those who speak quickly and use lots of slang or jargon. As your ear gets attuned to these characteristics, you begin to analyze your own speech -- and the speech of other Americans -- when they speak English to non-native speakers. You gain a feel for when a message is being successfully transmitted, and when it's not.

Capt Mark Jacobsen is a C-17 pilot and Olmsted scholar studying Arabic, Conflict Resolution, and Islamic History in Amman, Jordan.

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