In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Caitlin Moran talked about what it means to have and raise a child, that “you just disappear into another person”. I think that’s a great way to describe the experience. Having a child means of course changing your way of life, but it’s much more – it’s giving up a part of yourself to someone else. You’re a different person as a result.
What struck me on hearing that was that something analogous happens when you become proficient in a second language. You willingly give up part of yourself – your cultural assumptions, your linguistic certainty, your way of seeing the world – which disappear and are transformed into a new you. The second language brings with it not just a different set of cultural values but a new perspective on everything you experience. Of course, just learning a language in the classroom is not likely to provide this kind of experience – you need to live the language by becoming immersed in the target culture. Having taken students for many years on study abroad programs, I have often seen this kind of transformation take place.
Having a child and learning/living a new language are life-changing. Both offer the chance to gain by losing, giving something up in order to grow and learn. This isn’t universal in either case unfortunately, but the opportunity is there and waiting.