Learn another language, says my brain.



– reflections on learning German in Berlin, 2014 (and te reo Maori in NZ, 1997ff -)

2014-11-29 11.51.53

“Give me some chewing gum – in here please” – rubbish bin, Berlin, 2015.


To live is to be changed and be changing

Resistance to change is a form of death.

Internal change is needed to grow.

For mental health, for emotional maturity and spiritual growth.

Language learning means change.

We do not learn mere words.

We also learn cultural difference.

Our brains are changed, changing.

New neural pathways are formed.

We literally do not know “ourselves”.

We discover new selves. What’s not to like?

Well, resistance to learning another language seems now to me a resistance to change.

Immersion in another language culture can be frightening.

We are like children again, surrounded by a noisy bath of sounds we cannot decipher.

But children do not fear this, they swim in this noisy bath, like dolphins, in an element they have been made for.

We adults have lost that innocent grace, we have learned a thousand fears and absorbed many prejudices.

We don’t just say we speak English (or German etc), we say we are English.

We instinctively identify with the culture and our heritage-native language, as unitary.

Children are not yet culture-bound, they can learn any language that surrounds them.

They are in the process of absorbing what they will only much later come to feel is their cultural identity.

But didn’t Jesus say, “Except you become as little children”?

Adults become fixed in this fusion of language and culture; in resisting new language learning, we are actually resisting new cultural experience and personal growth.

If we believe – as is implied in the acceptance of our difference from other language groups – that incomers to our national boundaries need to learn our language to ‘assimilate’, i.e., become like us culturally, then it follows that we accept, unconsciously at least, that learning another language will require us to change.

Perhaps we sense it will require us to re-evaluate who we think we are.

But more likely, the resistance is unexamined.

However, if we insist that immigrants learn our language in order to become assimilated and good citizens, then we are also saying that our heritage language – when we travel, or when we read about other cultures – cannot give us any deep, experiential understanding of another language and culture.

In other words, monolingualism produces monoculturalism, and if the world needs anything today, it needs the ears to hear and the heart to value the words and ways of the stranger, the foreigner, the Other.


2016-02-19 14.33.09

International Poetry Festival reading, Granada, Nicaragua, 2016.


About paparoa

Writer and researcher.
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