Want to Live Another Life? Learn a Foreign Language

I don’t remember when I first read this ancient Czech proverb, but I was drawn to it because I know it’s true:

“You live a new life for every language you speak. If you know only one, you live only once.”

This is my story

When I was about 10 years old, I traveled to Montreal with my family. It was my first time out of the United States, and it was the first time I realized that part of Canada spoke French. I remember being completely intrigued by everything so foreign to me. I even kept a grocery bag with French words on it and some of their cool foreign coins and saved them in a secret drawer in my bedroom for years.

At age 11 I started helping my older brother with his Spanish homework, and that was all it took for me.

And I loved it.

At age 12 I began studying Spanish myself and continued until I had finished all the grammar studies in high school. I declared Spanish as my major at age 17, went off to college and then moved to Costa Rica to study abroad for a year at age 18.

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That’s when I grew into my second life

The Costa Rican culture, the food, the dancing, the people, the beautiful places, and, of course, the language all swept me away.

The incredible family that I lived with clicked with me starting from day one. I excelled in my studies and became an expert street salsa dancer. I had a permanent tan. A couple of guys I dated taught me how to talk on the phone in Spanish (much harder than in person). I’d befriend groups of people who didn’t speak English when I traveled every weekend. I wrote my journal in Spanish, and I even thought and dreamt in Spanish.

I was absolutely in my element.

Related: How to Say “I’m Hungry” in 10 Different Languages

With my host family in Costa Rica
With my host family in Costa Rica 2004

When that school year came to its inevitable end, I couldn’t accept that it was over. My entire world had been turned upside down, the rug completely pulled out from under me. I’ve never been so upset to take a flight “home.”

When I got there, I knew at once that I couldn’t stay, that things couldn’t just go “back to normal.”

My normal had changed

That was when I started learning Italian. Not long afterward, I set off for Italy at age 20 for another year of studying abroad. Another year of immersion in a new culture, a new language, with new food, people, sights, and activities. A completely new life, a third life, that was so easy and fitting for me. I fell completely in love with Italy, and I knew I wouldn’t stop there.

Italy study abroad
With friends in Italy 2005

I came out of that year with my life completely divided. I had a life in Italy, I had a life in Costa Rica, and I had a life in the States, with friends that I keep in touch with speaking in multiple languages literally all across the world, thanks to Facebook. What could I possibly do but keep adding experience and adventure to this life?

Related: An Olympic Experience: Torino 2006

I began studying French and German in college, and after graduation, I moved to Brazil for a third study abroad to learn Portuguese. I haven’t finished my French and German studies yet, but I plan to spend some time in France and Germany to become fluent in both, because I want those lives, too.

Update: I spent one month in France and can speak French now!

Brazil study abroad
At school in Brazil 2008

With each new language comes new surroundings, new friends, new ways of thinking, new challenges, new cuisine, new traditions, new phrases, new mindsets, and a whole new adventure. I cannot overstate the incredible journey that language-learning holds, and there is nothing better to introduce someone to the world of travel than studying abroad.

As Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Related: Why (and How) You Should Learn a Foreign Language

You can do it, too.

Wondering how? Let’s count the ways:

1. If you’re still in school, prioritize studying abroad NOW. Trust me, if you’re interested but you can’t “fit it in” to your schedule, you will always regret it. It could be the single most important thing you ever do during university years.

2. Not in school? Not a problem. You can start learning a language at home. Choose the path to your next life, I dare you:

3. Not a fan of software-only programs? If you’d rather learn one-on-one from a person, try Rype.

4. Interested in studying abroad? Age doesn’t matter and it doesn’t have to be through a university. Just follow these simple steps:

  • Open up Google.
  • Type “[Insert language of choice] language schools in [insert country or city of choice].”
  • Choose a program to research a bit, and sign up.

This is how I studied abroad post-graduation in Brazil.

5. Need more guidance and confidence to take the leap? Enroll in The Budget-Minded Traveler Blueprint online travel course first.