Nell’estate del 2015, while strolling near “I Libri di Magus,” my favorite bookstore in Seattle, at three in the morning, my eyes were immediately captivated by the title of a book and the yellow glow behind the window. So, the next morning, I went there, bought it, and read it. The book may not be the best collection of essays I’ve ever read, but since then, the title has stuck with me: “L’obbligo morale di essere intelligente.”
Do Languages Make You More Intelligent?
Che cosa ha a che fare con l’apprendimento delle lingue? Does speaking foreign languages make you smarter? It depends: Is the ability to speak another language part of intelligence? Not necessarily. But being intelligent and knowing foreign languages share one thing in common: they are both painful.
Languages Are Painful
And by painful, I don’t mean the tedium of tediously long lessons the study of vocabulary and grammar, or the expenditure of time for the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Nor the loneliness that your dedication to the effort might bring. The real torment is confusion. The larger the circle of what you know, the greater the contact with the unknown. And the more firmly held your preconceived beliefs, the more your new identity will waver. If you’re fortunate enough to study Farsi, you’ll realize that not all the most beautiful poems are written in your mother tongue; Persian epic poems written in the Sasanian Empire are as beautiful as those from the Tang dynasty.
Languages Are Unique
If you happen to study Spanish, you might realize that what you thought was a uniquely cultural aspect has a similar counterpart in another culture. Puerto Rican “morcilla” is almost identical to Korean “sundae.” If your language is Russian, you might realize that not all crucial battles that changed the course of human history were fought in your homeland. The defeat of the Golden Horde by Russia on the Kulikovo field is no less significant than the reconquest of Granada in Spain. “Can’t you do these things by reading history?”
One might wonder: Certainly, but history is written by whom? And for whom? After learning a language, if you care enough, a part of you becomes a member of the tribe to which that language belongs, and that cultural schizophrenia can be truly agonizing. However, that pain cannot be easily alleviated by better job prospects in the job market or the simple pleasure of impressing your friends at the table with political intrigues and historical anecdotes told in five different languages. Why then, even for those not insanely masochistic?
Want to learn a foreign language? Yes, to communicate with people. Yes, to travel to different places. Yes, to advance your career in a globalized world. Yes, because it’s good for your brain. But above all, regardless of how agonizing it is, it’s for those curious enough to see the world for what it is and for those brave enough to tear away the veils of fanaticism instead of comfortably hiding behind the language barrier and refusing to step forward to understand your fellow humans or even the so-called enemies. I am, in no way, accusing those who do not love foreign languages of being cowardly. If anything, they must always be more vigilant against fanaticism, nonsense, and the language barrier, and they must constantly seek more reliable sources of information. The pursuit of knowledge is almost by definition a form of masochism, and language learning is no exception. But in such pain, and perhaps only in such pain, can we overcome misunderstandings, connect cultures and civilizations, and find a world of peace and prosperity.