I remember stepping off the plane in Amsterdam and feeling immediately overwhelmed with excitement. For months I had been anticipating what it would be like to be in Europe with Hesston College’s International Chorale, and now the anticipation had ended. My mind was immersed in euphoria as I thought of the new experiences, food, people, landscapes, and a culture that was unfamiliar to my own, all so novel and delightful. Upon arrival I had no idea that my short time in Europe would be one of the greatest experiences of my life (so far).
One of the best parts of my experience in Europe was interacting with my host families. Each of my five different host families were so eager to extend hospitality and share their culture. The meals we shared were always extremely lavish and our rooms were prepared with great care. My hosts offered to do my laundry, bought small gifts, and were always so eager to here about American culture. Through so many gestures, big and small, my host families made it a point to make sure that I felt at home in an unfamiliar land.
As generous as each gesture of hospitality was, my host families were often distraught about one thing; to some degree they all struggled with English. While the majority of my host families could communicate very effectively with their English, all of my host families felt the need to apologize that they didn’t know more. As someone who only has experience in English and limited experience in Spanish, I felt very sheepish by my host families numerous apologies for their ability to communicate in English. Here were these people who had learned my language and were using it to build a relationship with me, but yet they still felt the need to apologize that they couldn’t communicate more properly. It didn’t seem right.
I remember having a conversation with my German host parents about their exceptional English and how they tried to practice it frequently. My host father then turned to me and said, “How much German do you know?” Again, the feelings of embarrassment and guilt washed over me as I thought of the handful of words I had learned prior to traveling. After butchering my very miniscule German vocabulary, I could tell that my host parents weren’t impressed, but they gave me an encouraging smile and complimented me anyways.
As someone who is currently studying Spanish, putting myself in another culture really reaffirmed my certainty in learning another language. Learning another language shows interest in cultures outside of your own and can provide more opportunities to get to know people. The more I reflect on my time in Europe, the more I realize how much richer and fuller my time could have been if I had taken the time to learn even some basic conversational phrases. I could have helped ease the anxiety that caring host parents felt as they tried to communicate with me or initiated conversations with friendly locals.
I believe that learning another language is one of the greatest hospitalities that we can give to other people. No food, bed, or service can give us the comfort of being understood. All of us have a need to speak and be heard, and many of us have been given the fortune of living in places where we are surrounded by people who can give us that kindness. If you have the opportunity, pass on that kindness and learn another language. Give someone the gift of being understood.