Learning a new language is a humbling process, because it basically means accepting that every word you know is wrong. The elaborate lexicon you’ve developed over the years suddenly becomes useless: the movie quotes you know, your street slang, old-fashioned words you ironically use—everything disappears in a smoking poof, leaving you publicly naked.

That’s because language is a comfy suit you have tailored to your size; a patchwork of all the environments you have been exposed to. You don’t understand how much of your identity is tied up in your language until you lose it.

I recently discovered this when I moved from Spain to New York three years ago, and had to begin again from scratch. Without language, you become a smiling machine: You smile when you understand something, but you also smile when you don’t understand a damn thing. In my case, took months to redevelop a spoken humor that would make others (not only myself) laugh.

Why go through such hell? It looks good in your resume, it allows you to travel abroad with more confidence, and it gives you common ground with that exotic foreigner on the other side of the bar. But it also widens your perspective, and by way of that, your creative resources.

Learning a new language is a humbling process, because it basically means accepting that every word you know is wrong. The elaborate lexicon you’ve developed over the years suddenly becomes useless: the movie quotes you know, your street slang, old-fashioned words you ironically use—everything disappears in a smoking poof, leaving you publicly naked.

That’s because language is a comfy suit you have tailored to your size; a patchwork of all the environments you have been exposed to. You don’t understand how much of your identity is tied up in your language until you lose it.

I recently discovered this when I moved from Spain to New York three years ago, and had to begin again from scratch. Without language, you become a smiling machine: You smile when you understand something, but you also smile when you don’t understand a damn thing. In my case, took months to redevelop a spoken humor that would make others (not only myself) laugh.

Why go through such hell? It looks good in your resume, it allows you to travel abroad with more confidence, and it gives you common ground with that exotic foreigner on the other side of the bar. But it also widens your perspective, and by way of that, your creative resources.

Learning a new language can be embarrassing, but you should push through the awkward phase. As a survivor of the shipwreck of your vocabulary, you keep afloat with the few things you can lug around. Here is some advice for when learning a language—or any other creative activity, for that matter.

  • Imperfection is better than nothing. People who speak poorly will go further than ones who take large pauses while trying to find the perfect word or are too embarrassed to talk at all. Your listener can forgive some mistakes, but they won’t forgive boredom.
  • MacGyver up. If you only have a few words handy, combine them to express more complicated ideas. Sometimes it won’t work, but when it does, it tickles people’s minds in ways preexisting words can’t. Shakespeare himself was the first one to use elbow as a verb, and I just conjugated a 1980s TV show at the beginning of this paragraph!
  • Divide and conquer. If you can’t think of a word, divide the concept into parts and describe it by surrounding it. For a long time I called squirrels rats-with-fancy-tails because I couldn’t pronounce it correctly. (Eventually I worked out the pronunciation trick, for me, was to say square-rolls.)
  • Become an archaeologist. If you find an unknown word, research it. Work out its etymology, synonyms and antonyms. You can even visit the tombs of your first language and see if, as Indiana Jones did with the golden idol, your native word can fill the gap.

But you don’t even necessarily need to learn a foreign language to experiment with these creative side effects: Just try to see your native language with new eyes. Be curioser and curioser, as Lewis Carroll might say. Use a few words in strange, new ways, and perceive the new realities that you are able to express.

The other day I discovered you can use bananas for crazy. Isn’t that… nuts?

Squirrels think so.

Article originally posted by qz.