There’s a certain sinking feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late. Perhaps a witty parting word could have made all the difference. There is no English word to express this feeling, but the French have the term l’esprit de l’escalier—translated, “stairwell wit”—for this very phenomenon.
Nor is there an English word to describe the binge eating that follows an emotional blow, but the Germans have kummerspeck—“grief-bacon”—to do just that. If we had the Swedish word lagom—which means something is just right—the English explanation of Goldilocks’ perfectly temperate soup could have been a lot more succinct. Or the term koi no yokan, a poetic Japanese turn of phrase that expresses the feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met. It’s not love at first sight so much as an understanding that love is inevitable. Keats and Byron could have really used a word like that.
There are many words that English speakers don’t have. Sometimes Anglophones take from other languages, but often, we have to explain our way around a specific feeling or emotion that doesn’t have its own word, never quite touching on it exactly.
“The reason why we borrow words like savoir faire from French is because it’s not part of the culture [in the United States] and therefore that word did not evolve as part of our language,” says George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Speaking different languages means you get different frames, different metaphors, and also you’re learning the culture of the language so you get not only different words, but different types of words,” Lakoff told me.
But the benefits of speaking multiple languages extend past just having access to different words, concepts, metaphors, and frames.
Multilingualism has a whole slew of incredible side effects: Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it’s no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots). And there’s certainly something to be said for the cultural pleasure of reading The Odyssey in ancient Greek or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in French.