On Multilingualism and Empathy

Hallo (German informal). Guten Tag (standard German). Moin moin (Northern Germany). Goed morgen (Dutch). Bonjour (French). Ciao (Italian). Privet (Russian). Merhaba (Turkish) . Salam (Arabic). Zdravo (Serbo-croation). Hi (English). These are a few of the greetings I might hear on any day in my hometown of Würselen, Germany, which lies just a few kilometers away from the three-country point where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet. It is by far the most multi-lingual place I have ever lived. Not only do I hear French spoken by Belgians and Dutch by the people from the Netherlands, there are also many immigrants from Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia, plus a few from the United States like myself, and also many refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries – between 2015 and 2018 Germany welcomed over 1.5 million refugees.1 As it turns out, this was very convenient for my family. When I was given the opportunity to work from my company’s Aachen office in 2018, my children, 7 and 9 at the time, were not the only non-native speakers of German in their school. On the contrary, nearly half the children had at least one parent that was not German, and the schools were very well setup to give extra help to the children who were not yet fluent in German.

Let me contrast this with my own childhood growing up in Trenton, Michigan, a suburb several miles downriver from Detroit. Other than in second grade, when we had a Japanese student, whose father was working for Mazda for one year, and a handful of foreign exchange students in high school, I never heard anyone speak any language other than English. In high school, we were offered the chance to learn French, German, or Spanish. This is actually a greater offering than many schools in the United States.

How can one explain this large discrepancy? I think there are a number of reasons for it. The most obvious reason is that the United States is such a large country, that you can literally drive for days without needing to speak a different language. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, is also mostly English-speaking. Contrast this with the European Union, which is about half the size of the contiguous United States, yet encompasses 27 countries and boasts 24 official languages.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “who cares”? Does it really matter if someone speaks more than one language? Why doesn’t everyone just learn English? Is there some sort of benefit? In my opinion, yes, there is. I believe that one of the key factors of making our earth a better place is to become more empathetic. By imagining ourselves being in the position of someone else, we can try to see the world from their perspective, and perhaps be a bit more open-minded, and less quick to judge. I think that there many different levels of empathy. No one will ever be able to experience the world exactly as another person would, but one can get closer to this in varying degrees.

The first step towards multilingual and multicultural empathy might be to perform what Albert Einstein called a Gedankenexperiment or “thought experiment”. One can simply use their own imagination to consider what it might be like to arrive as a refugee in another country, not knowing the language or customs of this foreign place. What is the first thing you might do? Probably seek food or shelter. And how do you do that? You will need to rely on the kindness of strangers. You can hope that you might find someone that speaks a bit of your language, and could direct you to the right place. But what if there are no kind strangers? What if you find yourself lost without food or shelter? Imagine how terrifying that might be! Just by the act of taking some time to carry out this sort of thought experiment, we might gain a little bit of empathy for the people from Mexico and Central America who enter the United States of America every day, some legally, some illegally, but all seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

What can we do besides such a thought experiment? I think the next step is to travel to a place in which a different language is spoken. This could be to central or south America, or perhaps Europe or Asia. Not everyone can afford such a trip, but if you can, I would highly encourage it. If you are able to travel, making the effort to learn even just a few simple words and phrases in the language where you are going can make a huge difference. Generally, the expectations that people have for Americans are very low, so when you show that you have made the effort to learn a bit of a foreign language, it demonstrates that you are interested in getting to know the culture of the country you are in, for language and culture are inexorably intertwined. Food, too, is an important part of culture. If you really want to learn the food culture of a place, I highly recommend going to the grocery store. At the grocery store is where you can find out what people are eating at home, instead of just at restaurants, which may be more designed for the tourists. Americans have it easy in many places, in that so many people speak some English. This is only true if you stay in big cities or highly touristed areas though. If you venture to smaller and less popular destinations, you will need to know more of the local language, but you will also be rewarded with a more authentic experience of the culture.

So, traveling is a good step towards multilingualism and gaining empathy through experiencing other cultures. However, I wanted to go even further than this, so I decided to opt for a longer experience.

Here, I would like to step back a bit from the academic side of this question, and tell you a bit more about my personal journey. I am a Germanophile – I have been for over twenty years. I like Germany and most things German, and I have my father to blame for this. He planned to study Chemistry in college in 1960, and was advised to learn German, since many scientific articles were published in German. He enjoyed his German classes better than Chemistry, and instead majored in German. After teaching high school for several years (and meeting my mom, who was the Latin teacher), he received a masters degree in Germanic Linguistics. German as a career did not last for him too long. Trying to teach undergraduate students who mostly wanted to protest the Vietnam war was disappointingly difficult, and he ultimately spent over twenty years as an insurance agent. Nevertheless, he still took the opportunity to read me and my sister some German childrens’ books, and his Germanophile nature was contagious. When it came time for me pick a foreign language in high school, German was a natural choice. Not only did I have a great teacher, but I also had my dad to help me at home. My junior year I spent 3 weeks with a family there, and that really opened my eyes to so many things. One thing I remember from that trip is how I politely tried many new foods I had never before. I had always been a very picky eater, especially when it came to vegetables. I think my mother was really shocked when I came home asking for tomato cucumber salad!

Following a very similar path as my father, I started college majoring in Physics, but after a semester abroad in Munich, I too switched to German. Like my father, I was also fascinated by Linguistics, and ended up getting my Ph.D. in Germanic Linguistics. I picked up computer programming on the side for fun, and eventually merged those two passions into a job as a computational linguist. I spent nearly 10 years working on developing virtual assistants for televisions, computers, and automobiles. When a work colleague told me in October 2016 that he was relocating from the Montreal office to the Aachen office, I thought that this could be a wonderful opportunity for my family to learn another language, in particular my children, who were six and eight at the time. Through my courses in second language acquisition I had learned about the so-called critical period between eight and thirteen years of age, in which humans lose the ability to acquire a language as a first language, and instead must learn a language as a second language. Due to our brain development, the experience of language acquisition as opposed to language learning is quite different. Most people who learn a language after the critical period will never achieve native fluency. Thus my children were at the perfect age to move – they were old enough that they would not forget English, yet also young enough to learn another language as native speakers.

In November 2016, a plurality of Americans cast their vote for Hilary Clinton to be president, but Donald Trump won the electoral college and became president. This deeply saddened me and I fell into depression, and wanted to get out of the country even more. It took several months of negotiations with my company, but eventually they gave me a reasonable offer (only a 20% pay cut instead of 40% like their first offer), and we decided to pack up and move to Germany. We left on May 29th 2018. Since I had initiated the move, we had to pay for everything ourselves, which meant we did it on the cheap. We got rid of most of our stuff, put a few things in storage, and each brought 2 big checked suitcases, a carry-on, and backpack. There were multiple times throughout the process where either my wife Clare or I were ready to give up and just stay in our nice house in Colorado. I recall one moment about a week or two before our departure, when I started to think that we were simply not going to get everything done, and I was ready to abort the mission. At this moment, Clare inspired me with a quote from John F. Kennedy, talking about going to the moon.

We choose to [..] do the [..] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Moving across the ocean has certainly been the hardest thing I have ever done. As one might imagine, my children were not really excited about leaving their friends and the familiarity of their surroundings. I tried to teach them some German before we moved, but it was mostly met with resistance. A day or two before we left one of our friends arranged a huge going away party with all of our friends and family. There must have been 50 people there, which really struck me, just how much we were giving up personally. I really started to doubt whether we were making the right choice, but we had decided to rent out our house, and thus always had a backup plan. If we had made the wrong decision, we could always come back. I wanted us to give it a try for at least two years though. I predicted that it would be difficult to learn the language, make friends and get settled in. If we left after one year, we would be leaving just when we were starting to feel settled in.

This prediction turned out to be true. I sought out activities for the children before we even left. They were both in the Scouts in the USA, and I found a scout troop for them in Germany. They went on several camp-outs that summer, even before they knew much German. Throwing them into the deep end like this was challenging, but they rose up to the challenge, and it really helped them learn the language. I found a soccer team for my son within walking distance of our apartment, and we got really lucky to have great coaches, and very nice players and parents. He picked up the language and made friends quickly. For my daughter, it was more difficult, partially just because she is a girl. While the boys’ play often involved a ball, and minimal vocabulary, the girls liked to spend a lot more time talking, which was particularly difficult for Meg. A work colleague of mine had recommended the book When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit, about a family flees Germany before Hitler came to power, and moves to Switzerland, France, and eventually England. We read the book aloud together as a family, and all really enjoyed it. At one point while the family is in France, the daughter struggles for about six months to learn French, while her older brother seems to pick it up rather quickly. But at some point, it just “clicks”. I suspected that Meg would have a similar experience, and eventually it happened. Clare’s parents came to visit for Christmas, who speak almost no German. Meg really enjoyed showing them around, and helping them understand all the signs in German. I think that was her “click” moment, when she realized that this foreign language was actually useful.

Even though I had studied German, I soon learned that reading Goethe and Schiller had not prepared me for many daily activities such as shopping for school supplies. While I could understand that Schnellhefter translates to “fast folder”, I could not tell you what one actually looked like. The same goes for the various kinds of pens and pencils the children required. Even though Clare spoke almost no German at this point, she was brave enough to take the kids shopping. She took them to the local paper store with the list of supplies in hand, and the salesperson was kind enough to gather all the required items for them. We were forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, and this would not be the last time.

Soon, the children were starting to teach me more than the other way around. The roles of the family also changed quite a bit. I took on the responsibility of taking the kids to the doctor and going to meetings for school. Clare has adapted amazingly well, in spite of her still limited German skills. I recall a neighbor once mentioning that she would not be able to go shopping without being fluent in German, but she has managed just fine. There were a few mistakes along the way, such as when she got pickled pumpkin for our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, but I have probably made as many shopping mistakes as she has. Being thrust into a new environment and culture often gives us all a sense of being a bit lost, but on the plus side, it also has sparked our curiosity, at least for me. I feel like I walk around with an eye for discovery, instead of just taking my surroundings for granted. After three years, there are some parts that feel familiar, but many experiences still seem foreign, which is both exhausting, as well as exhilarating. I wonder if this will every stop.

I would like to step back into the academic realm a bit, and pontificate on the topic of language and culture. In the late 1930s, Benjamin Whorf, a student of the influential linguist Edward Sapir, published several papers about the concept of linguistic relativity – the idea that language can shape the way we think. Whorf, and following his death in 1941 a number of linguists adherent to his ideas, made some strong claims regarding the relationship between language and thought, suggesting ones language could influence ones perception of reality. One of Whorf’s most contentious claims was that the American-indian Hopi tribe had a completely different understanding of time, since they did not distinguish between past, present and future tenses, as most European languages do, but rather Hopi has only two tenses – future, and non-future (past and present are grouped together). Most of Whorf’s claims were later refuted, though unfortunately they are still repeated, along with other claims like “there are 47 words for snow in Eskimo”. In truth, Inuit languages do have a number of different ways to describe snow, but not unlike the different terms a skier or snowboarder might use, such as powder, slush, or chowder. Nowadays, most linguists distinguish between a strong and a weak version of linguistic relativity. The strong version claims a causal relationship between language and thought – that one’s language really drives the way one thinks and experiences the world. The weak version claims simply that language and thought are correlated, without claiming a strict causal relationship. Just because a language doesn’t have a word for something does not mean that they cannot conceive it. Very few linguists (including Whorf himself likely, if we could ask him now) promote this strong view, but many modern linguists do realize that language and thought are connected. Even when one reads arguments against linguistic relativity, for example from the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who espouses the idea that we think in a distinct mentalese, this mental though must nevertheless be expressed in a natural language, and that natural language must then also be translated by the receiver of a message back to this mentalese representation. One can imagine that all of this translating can result in miscommunications, much like the game of telephone, in which a group of people retell a message to another person in a circle. Often the message delivered from the final person in the circle back to the first person is quite a bit different than the original message, due to elements repeatedly being lost in translation.

I too only believe in a weak form of linguistic relativity, but I do think that there are ways in which we can discover the interconnected relationship between language, culture, and thought. Consider that language X has a specific word for some concept, while language Y lacks such a specific word; this may be indicate that this concept has a strong importance in culture X, while it may be less important in culture Y. For example, in Germany there is a word Feierabend literally meaning “celebration evening”. Roughly translated, this means “the time after work”, or “quitting time”. I think it is important to note that Feierabend is not a single point in time though – rather it is a period of time – the period of time in which you are not doing your job, and in which you can spend your time as you see fit. It is very indicative of the culture in Germany that when one is done with work for the day, one is truly done. I found it very uncommon in Germany for people to work in the evenings or on weekends, whereas I frequently saw Americans doing this. Particularly in the age of the internet, many Americans seem to mix work and pleasure freely, browsing Facebook during work, and checking their email in the evening and on vacation. When leaving the office in Germany, you will frequently hear someone saying schönen Feierabend (have a nice evening off), with the expectation, that they will not engage in any work-related activities until the next day. It is not the case that English speakers cannot conceptualize time off from work, but to me, the existence of a specific word for it in German offers a glimpse into the German culture. Thus learning this word gives one a better understanding of the work culture in Germany, and might help an American manager understand why their German colleagues might find it insulting to suggest working on a weekend.

I would like to close by coming back to the topic of doing hard things. Early in the book When Hitler stole pink rabbit, one of the kids complains that he will never be a famous artist, because all great artists and authors had a difficult childhood2. Later in the book, the father comments, that if nothing else, his kids should be grateful for the opportunity to become famous, because they had a very difficult childhood. Of course, the daughter, Judith Kerr, does become a famous author, by writing about her difficult childhood. I hope that my own children can appreciate this one day too, for the difficult childhood I have inflicted upon them, and that in the long run, it helps them to become more empathetic people, to be the kind stranger who helps out the immigrant who doesn’t know the language or culture. I hope that I might convince some other people to also get out of their comfort zones, and accept the challenge to learn another language and culture, with the goal of becoming more empathetic, and making our earth a more welcoming and peaceful place to call home.


I presented this speech to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Michigan on August 21st, 2021. Thank you very much to Sarah Nuss-Warren for inviting me to speak, and giving me helpful feedback on earlier versions. Thanks as well to my lovely wife Clare for suggesting to start the speech with a hello in many different languages.


  2. Judith Kerr, When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit, pg. 32