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How Languages Will Make The World More Compassionate

I have always been a firm believer that speaking multiple languages makes a person more compassionate.

I have this fundamental belief that my empathetic personality is somehow intertwined with having grown up immersed in a multilingual environment, but have never quite understood why.

Thinking about this recently however, I realised that when we look at human emotion as a language as itself, this link between language and compassion makes a lot more sense: Do we not read emotions like words? We try and read people’s feelings, study them and, if we can, understand them.

The same skills we use during language learning such as pattern identification, using context clues and being perceptive to new information are key to developing emotional comprehension and, therefore, empathy.

Apart from my own personal opinion on this, research also points to the conclusion that multilingualism encourages emotional intelligence and empathy.

An article by Muzi Chen, Yuqi Fang (Chen & Fang, 2022) discusses findings from a variety of social studies comparing bilingual and monolingual children, the general conclusions being that children who spoke more than 1 language were more likely to be able to identify, understand and interpret irony in communication, be better at understanding the meaning of more complex sentences, and be more prone to open-minded thinking.

From these findings, one can see how the heightened comprehension skills of multilingual speakers means they can better read the emotional states of others and then identify themselves with these emotions – the perfect combination to produce compassionate, understanding human begins who are tuned into understanding the needs of both themselves and others.

Another way in which multilingualism could help create a more compassionate world is the cultural education it brings alongside it. Language learning unlocks endless opportunities to learn about how different cultures deal with fundamental experiences of human life such as death, love, happiness, and grief. In the same way that cultures deal with these events differently, so do individual people.

This intercultural awareness can be translated as understanding that different people will react and feel unique emotions in every situation, making it more possible to identify and feel empathy for others’ emotions – even if they are not the same as our own.

This year I lived in Portugal as part of my year abroad, and some of my happiest memories of the entire 10 months are being sat around a table outside with people from all over the world, laughing at the weird and wonderful ways languages work.

These congregations at the picnic tables were the perfect melting-pot environment for all these cultures and languages. As a conversation starter, I often asked people for unique words from their native languages for Private Joke (shameless plug, go check out the boardgame!).

What started as laughing at literal translations of words from their mother- tongue into English (one of my favourites was learning the German for chickpea is ‘giggle-bean’) and sharing weird idiomatic phrases eventually turned into compassionate interpersonal conversations on how everyone was dealing with homesickness, coping with university workloads, heartbreak, life in a new environment – and it was honestly one of the moments in which I felt most connected as a human to other humans the entire year.

Imagine a world in which populations of people have a greater scope for understanding one another than ever. Where people are able to see further than the literal words that a person is saying in order to understand what they truly mean. This is yet ANOTHER gift multilingualism could provide the world with.

About The Author: Sofía is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and is currently on her year abroad in Portugal. She is undertaking a BA in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Manchester and speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Articles cited

Chen, M., & Fang, Y. (2022). The Relationship between Bilingual and Empathy. Advances in

Social Science, Education and Humanities Research.


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