I learn: languages and languages

Fluency in multiple languages opens our minds to different cultures.


When I’m not learning and practicing music, part of my soul goes hungry. Listening to new-to-me songs and longer works in a variety of styles and traditions helps a little, the way a fruit plate at an after-work meeting staves off the craving for something more substantial.

The effects of learning music have been researched extensively. Engaging in the study of music improves cognitive skills, social connection, and related achievement. The discipline and reward of practicing new choral, small group and solo works affects all aspects of my life. Spending five to ten hours a week in focused study and practice of music gives me more energy and focus in my non-music-related work. I accomplish more in the time remaining than I would with a less structured calendar.

Music isn’t my only non-native language. Starting in high school, I learned how to program computers. I haven’t stopped picking up additional languages and frameworks, writing anything from large projects to the glue that automates a tedious or precision task. Although I am not the active contributor to commercial, in-house, and open source software I once was, I don’t think I could go a year without the mental calisthenics of solving problems through code. If there isn’t a pressing set of problems for me to attack in my daily life, from time to time I’ll head to one of the many resources for improving software development skills and brush up.

It is to my shame that, despite being musically and technically proficient in multiple languages, I am not functionally multilingual in human languages. I come closest in French, the second official language every anglophone Canadian learns enough of in school to read a cereal box. I’d learned French (academic and Quebec variants) well enough to speak it in Montreal, and to read and discuss Sartre’s plays and essays. I stopped regularly using French when I left public school, content to get along in a mix of French and English that’s a bit more correct than franglais as needed.

Fluency in multiple languages opens our minds to different cultures. Structure, syntax, and vocabulary are the building blocks of communication and shared understanding. In addition to English and French, the little snippets of German, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Finnish I’ve learned provide insight into how people who speak, write, and read those languages see the world and their place within it. The niches that exist in programming languages and development environments create a set of tools not unlike those of any tradesman. The contents of my tool belt influence the way I frame problems and potential solutions. Music itself has hundreds of dialects that are formed by and in turn inform culture. I’ve concentrated my performance studies on a mix of western classical, jazz, and folk musics but listen broadly both for enjoyment and to learn.

I’ll be in my first opera chorus this summer, as the rest of my life continues its curious, fulfilling course. It will be exciting to nourish my soul in the company of another new-to-me group of collaborators.

Whatever languages and learning enrich your life, I hope they bring you joy and new horizons.

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