What is your favorite saying or idiom in a language other than English? What does it mean?
In Chinese, there are sayings called “Chéngyǔ” (成语). These are four-character sets that are shorthand for stories that contain ancient wisdom. My favorite is 塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ). It means “Old Man Loses Horse” and is a story about an old frontiersman who lost his horse. All the townsfolk lament how this is a horrible thing. The old frontiersman remarks, “Who knows? It could be positive or negative.” Then, the horse who fled returns with another horse. At this, the townsfolk noted how this was a great turn of fate, for now, the man had two horses! The old horseman gave the same retort. Later, when the old frontiersman’s son was riding the new horse, he fell and was seriously injured, such that he would never walk right again. The townsfolk were unanimous in how this turn of events was quite awful. The old frontiersman was again non-committal in his evaluation of the situation. “Who knows?” he said. “It could be good or bad.” Later, the army was passing through the village, forcibly enlisting young men into the army. The old frontiersman’s son was spared being forced to go fight in a faraway war. The townsfolk, many of whom had had their sons pressed into service against their will, now realized that the old man losing his horse, and even his son’s horrible accident, ended up being blessings in the long run. Thus, when something seemingly negative happens, Chinese people can simply (and stoically!) state, 塞翁失马 (“Old man loses horse”) to indicate that even things that seem negative now might actually be blessings in disguise.
Why should everyone learn to speak more than one language?
Learning another language is one of the most rewarding things someone can do. First, learning another language activates different parts of the brain. According to some research, bilingualism may offer some defense against dementia (and other diseases involving cognitive decline) later in life. As such, learning another language is a good exercise for the brain. More importantly, it’s also good for the soul. Learning another language helps you understand other people and other cultures in a more profound way. Thought and language are intertwined and influence each other in many surprising ways. When you acquire a second (or third or fourth!) language, you train your brain to adopt and use different ways of seeing and structuring the world. It forces us to step out of the linguistic prison house of our native language, permitting us to adopt thought patterns and systems of classification proper to peoples and societies very different from ours. It also allows us to communicate with others in their native tongue, helping us to understand their reality better. That’s the biggest payoff. In summary, not only is learning another language a great workout for your brain, but it will also give you access to other cultures and new ways of thinking, all the while helping you form real bonds of friendship and community with people of every nation and creed.