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Languages and me

Just like my relationship to anything, my relationship to languages is a reflection of my relationship to myself and to the world.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Languages are typically embedded in a context consisting of a wild mix of ethnical, cultural, historical, social, political and other factors. Often, native speakers are directly exposed to or integral part of that context. Non-native speakers are often not directly exposed to that same context (but of course they, too, are exposed to their own context(s)).

Learning languages has therefore the benefit of providing an indirect access to that embedded context of a person. I’m going to share a few anecdotes and personal examples to explain how that applies to me.

A lack of context can cause confusion

First a few words on my upbringing: My father was a native speaker of Farsi, being born in Shiraz, Iran. For most of his life, he lived in Germany. My mom is German. In our home in southern Germany, we only spoke German.

I noticed that there are some words that my father pronounced “funnily” in my perception. For example, my father used to say “kahmputar” instead of computer, or “Novambr” instead of November. This often confused me, and I was silently judging him for this “wrong” pronounciation.

Only very recently, years later, as I started to study Farsi myself, I learned that these are actually the correct pronounciations of computer and November in Farsi, his mother tongue. The latter of which is due to the French influence on the Farsi language. Consider, for example, that the word for thanks in Farsi “mersi” in Farsi (from merci in French). Interestingly to me, French has had a strong influence on both Turkish and on Farsi, but for different reasons.

My confusion and judgement about his pronounciation was a reflection of my lack of awareness on his embedded context.

When he spoke German in general, my father had no Iranian accent. Therefore I sometimes did not consider that his mother tongue is Farsi. Interestingly enough, when he spoke French, I registered his pronounciation as simply “wrong”. By now I also recognize that his French had a Farsi accent, other than his German. His English had a very light Iranian accent, and his French a very thick and strong Farsi accent. To this day that’s very interesting to me.

All of this is to say, a lack of context on another person can cause confusion and wrong conclusions. Due to this and similar thoughts, I am trying to be very conscious about not judging someone else’s behaviour, and not assume anything about their context or personality from the get-go.

I am convinced that this mentality keeps many doors open that were otherwise shut to me.

Languages open doors to unexpected experiences

Last year, I met 4 young men from Afghanistan in a train ride from Hamburg to Berlin.

When I inadvertently overheard some of their conversation (they sat in the booth right next to me across the aisle), I was of the impression that they speak Farsi which each other. So I chatted them up in Farsi, saying something in the light of “Salam, man Farsi yad migiram” (Hello, I am learning Farsi). So I found out that they spoke Dari, in fact.

Over the course of the ride that took about one and a half hours, this lead to a very interesting conversation with them. For the last 30 minutes or so, we even ended up playing different Afghan card games together. The oldest one of this group, whose name I regretfully forgot, was very talkative and happy to share personal stories and intimate aspects of his personality, his life in Afghanistan and his ventures in Berlin, some of which I am sure he doesn’t even share with not-so-close-acquaintances.

Being a complete stranger, the only redeeming property about me was my amateurish usage of Farsi.

Of his friends, one was nicknamed Bolbol (nightingale) because of his tendency to make jokes, talk nonsense and make other jibes (a habit of his that I came to thoroughly enjoy as well), another one was Rafiq (this means friend in English).

I think back to this encounter often and fondly, and I have learned a lot in it. Thinking back to this train ride makes me very happy. In this encounter, in my perception, I gained a deep and “pure” insight into the life of these men (and their embedded context). All of which had been locked to me, had I not have the rudimentary knowledge of Farsi that I had.

Close neighbours and different cultures

Earlier this year, at a private gathering for a celebratory occasion in Paris, I got into great conversations with a few French people, one of whom I had the chance to improve my French with while he had the chance to improve his English.

After 30 minutes of a somewhat bumpy (but still enjoyable) conversation I regained some confidence in my French and the rest of the conversation was even more enjoyable.

I got new insights into the French culture, in spite of being born in Karlsruhe, a city that is just at the French border and maintains a close relationship with France. I started to learn French in primary school and in my youth we used to go on day trips to the Alsace.

Yet, in this conversation, I learned about things that I hadn’t been aware before.

For example, I learned about the French culture of drinking coffee after lunch, and lunch generally being relaxed and meditative and without haste, which, counter to common values and experiences I encounter in Berlin’s startup world of hecticness and time pressure, does not mean a lack or loss of productivity.

On the contrary, such approach has the potential of being very beneficial for team moral, deeper connections, and it can even improve efficiency and productivity on the whole.

Once again, the connecting aspect that made our conversation on such a level possible, was the use of a common language strongly related to the embedded context of my conversation partner.

A pathway to empathy and a deeper understanding

Language unlocks easier access to knowledge and experiences. Even one step further, the access to various embedded contexts finally gives the opportunity for an expansion of one’s own empathy, understanding and respect of someone else’s upbringing, reality and culture.

And as the final step to closing the feedback loop, empathy for another human being opens doors to unseen worlds with unseen concepts that widens the spectrum of my possibilities, and provides the opportunity to also grow my self-conception. By understanding someone else better, I understand myself better.


Putting the thought that I tried to convey so far more concisely: language provides an opportunity and means of connection (to myself and to everything).

This is why I love languages and why I make an active effort in growing my (passive and active) understanding of them.

As a final comment, my love for poetry is founded in a similar base. This is not surprising (and also not unremarkable) due to the closeness of language and poetry. A more poetical expression of this whole train of thought can be found in this not-an-interview.

Published 18 Sep 2019

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