Language learning and systems thinking

Language learning and systems thinking

thankyou_woodleywonderworksI’ve been reading a lot this week about language study and what some researchers and writers are discovering about its effect on the brain. (In a previous blog entry, I mentioned William Alexander’s Flirting with French, which has some surprising, medically-supported conclusions about how his brain changed after a year of intensive study.) As I continue to explore, and to reflect on my own experience, I am increasingly convinced that there are some enormous benefits of foreign language mastery for one’s mind and character.

Of course, I should admit to having something of a bias that comes from my interest in the subject matter. For many years, I have enjoyed studying language, particularly French and Spanish, and endeavoring to achieve high levels of fluency and even proficiency. Most of my life, I have had the opportunity to live and work in multi-lingual environments, and I see a bit more every day that exposure to diverse languages and cultures has had a positive impact on me, and also on my family.

In future posts, I may enumerate some of the benefits of language study for the mind. Today, though, I would like to focus specifically on how mastering a foreign language helps us improve our systems thinking.

Language and thought: At the risk of stating the obvious, all of our thought processes are conducted in language. Once, when I was a college student, our philosophy professor asked us to spend a moment trying to think without language. Of course, her point was that this is impossible. Our entire existence or essence is inextricably bound to the languages we speak.

As I confessed above, my point of view is somewhat biased, but to my mind speaking any single language provides us only a limited window on the human experience. To understand the true roots of our thought processes, to comprehend the depth and complexity of the mind, a knowledge of several languages may be necessary. At the very least, we can say that speaking more than one language opens us up to entire systems of thinking about every aspect of life.

When we learn a language well, we discover a whole system of thought, with ways of seeing the human condition that are often new to us. The process opens our minds to the reality that there are a multiplicity of points of view, a variety of ways to conceptualize the world, many forms of self-expression, and a wide diversity of cultural filters. As the great Italian filmaker Federico Fellini put it: “A different language is a different vision of life.”

Why mastering language makes us better systems thinkers: Part of systems thinking is about getting outside our silos and crossing boundaries. It is about learning to see a whole process or system, and to understand its complexities and uncertainties from a variety of perspectives.

If, as Charlemagne used to say, “to have another language is to possess a second soul”, then the more languages we speak, the more perspectives—or souls—we have to understand all of humanity. The more languages we master, the more we see that human thought and systems are infinitely profound and intricate. This exposure helps us deal with complexity in our all parts of our lives, including our work.

Learning a language is the only way to truly understand another culture. And, when we understand another country and its people, we bring broader perspective to everything we do, we have more dots to connect, and a wider variety of ways of looking at problems or making decisions. All of this makes us more effective as systems thinkers.

Image: Flickr user woodleywonderworks


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