Why learning a new language makes you more empathetic

laurel dault
Article by: Laurel Dault
Why learning a new language makes you more empathetic

Discovering a new language is an excellent analogy for the practice of creative leadership. Picture yourself attempting to communicate in a foreign country: uncertain yet curious, uncomfortable yet resilient, humbled by everything there is to learn.


For some, the frustration of bumbling through an unknown language can lead to avoidance, choosing instead to stay in a phonetically familiar resort or to abstain from travel abroad altogether. Linguist, writer, and educator Julien Leyre takes another stance. This THNKer believes that communication challenges are perfect opportunities to develop empathy.

A Delightful Struggle

Julien discovered the empathy-developing properties of language-learning firsthand when he began studying Chinese at the age of 30. Already fluent in nine languages – three of which were ancient– and a linguistics teacher at the Sorbonne University in Paris, he recalls “I was on top of the world. You put me a room, and I could be smart and articulate.” However, after arriving in China for a holiday, Julien was surprised to discover how little he could communicate, even after studying the language for hours and hours.

Julien was delighted by this struggle. “It was fantastic because it taught me humility—the limits of one’s own brain and the limits of capacity. By doing that, it also builds empathy for people who come from somewhere else and might struggle articulating things. And you have this very deep, ingrained sense of what it feels like to be operating in a world that is unfamiliar.”

Not long after beginning his quest to learn Chinese, Julien moved to Australia and founded the Marco Polo Project; an organization that explores new models for cross-cultural education. Initially an online platform to bring Chinese voices to Western readers, the organization soon began hosting cultural events bringing together native speakers of Chinese and English. Today, they also run community events, language events, and design new education programs. Multicultural events are not just a chance for each community to preserve its distinct past and tradition, but, as Julien puts it, “they become the cutting edge of social innovation, the spaces where, from our diverse traditions, we get together, and invent a new future together.”

learning a new language
Being in a completely foreign environment is the perfect opportunity to bask in humility and develop empathy. Click To Tweet

Words, Texts and Deeper Meanings

One of the programs offered by the Marco Polo Project is a weekly collaborative translation session, in which a mixed group of native Chinese-speakers and native English-speakers translate a text together. Julien deliberately selects texts for the session that will trigger conversations about culture, spirituality, and profound concepts. “The goal is not to produce a good translation; we don’t care. It’s about unpacking the meaning that’s hidden in the text and having in depth discussions about the elements.” Their best conversations happen when they try to translate something abstract or that holds deep cultural meaning.

Just as with learning a new language, translating together provides a powerful opportunity to build empathy. “By translating a text with another person, you develop in-depth empathy because you are really able to understand what the mental world of that other person might be, based on the language they inhabit, and how that world is different from yours.” Julien explains that through those interactions you recognize that the other person has a mental world that is as complex as your own, and yet is structured differently.

Julien’s work to bring cultures together has been formally celebrated by his adoptive country. In 2016, he was recognized on The Victorian Multicultural Honour Roll, and in 2017 he was honoured as New Australian of the Year for his outstanding leadership and contributions toward building a harmonious and diverse community.

learning a new language

In a workshop hosted by the Marco Polo Project, individuals connect and build empathy by sharing and contrasting experiences from their own contexts.

Transforming a Leader

Julien attributes some of his leadership success to his participation in the THNK Executive Leadership Program. “It was profoundly transformative for me.”

Calm and soft-spoken, Julien had spent much of his life believing that leaders needed to be energetic extroverts. “I thought that in order to lead people, I needed to constantly be pushing messages, radiating out energy towards other people, and be a little bit hyper. But that’s not natural to me. When I tried to do that, I felt both tired and out of balance.” After working with THNK Faculty Andra Perrin and Valentijn Owens (whom he calls the best teachers he’s ever had), Julien recognized the power of leading as his authentic self. “Identifying the capacity to be calm and soft as a source of strength is something that THNK allowed me to embrace. I now approach all situations in this way and have gotten much better results because I’m working to my strengths.”

In addition to transforming how he relates to others, Julien also took forward the design thinking process that he learned during the program. “Shortly after finishing, I started to apply it to every single new challenge that I had do. And now I go through the THNK Creation Flow and I apply it everywhere.”

“Participating in the Executive Leadership Program has made me considerably happier and more confident. It’s also allowed me to do more things better with more people.”

After working with THNK Faculty, Julien Leyre (pictured here at the annual THNK FSTVL) recognized the power of leading as his authentic self.

Julien is one of the inspiring leaders who took part in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To discover how you can develop your own empathy and flex your creative leadership muscles without learning a new language, join the upcoming Executive Leadership Program.