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“dating” languages

Posted by Erik on March 27, 2009

This is a phrase that came up in the story that I mentioned in my previous post about the 37 Languages blog. It seems to be a pretty good way of describing my own relationship with languages over the years: I’d find a language that looked interesting, maybe had a sexy, exotic script, or meet one somewhere and discover we had some common interests, we’d go out a few times… I’ve even “gone steady” with one or two for a while, but in the end we always break up over something. But reading this blog has got me to seriously thinking and re-evaluating my interest in languages – why I *am* so interested in them, and what I would expect out of learning them, and what it would take for me to settle down and commit to just one (or two).

[/end over-extended relationship metaphor]

I’ve been interested in language and languages for about as long as I’ve been interested in comparative religion, which is to say most of my life. At one time or another I have studied, played with or at least expressed a mild interest in probably a dozen languages – I have a whole bookcase devoted to the foreign-language books and related materials I’ve collected along the way (this is not at all counting the mass of  historical and technical material I have about English).

On the most superficial level, there are some languages that I value primarily for one specific aspect or feature. Arabic, for instance, is a visual experience for me – I learned to read the Arabic alphabet because of my love of Islamic calligraphy and visual art, and of the beauty of the script itself, but I have never (yet) tried to learn the language itself beyond the few tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. Similarly, I love to listen to Portuguese, Irish Gaelic and Russian – these languages strike my ear as inherently musical, and I listen to them in much the same way that I might listen to instrumental music.

Some languages interest me not for themselves, but for the places where they are spoken. Welsh, for instance – we spent a day in Wales in 1999 and I fell in love with it, and really really want to go back for a longer visit. Then there’s India, which is in a 3-way tie to top the list of places I want to go before I die (sharing pride of place with Japan and “back to the UK”)… my desire to go there, my enjoyment of Bollywood movies and fascination with Hindu religion – not to mention my love of the food! – could all add up to an option to learn Hindi.

There are other languages that have passed through my life at different times, for various reasons, but that I’m not really engaged with today. German, for instance, is a relic of my childhood with my Lutheran minister grandfather (I also took three semesters in college, and one continuing-ed refresher about 12 years ago); I took two years of Spanish in high school at the strong encouragement of my family; and I studied Hebrew for a while during and after the period when we were considering conversion. I am still tangentially involved with Hebrew as a singer, but not beyond being able to read the alphabet, pronounce it correctly and understand parts of the siddur (prayerbook).

I am more deeply involved on an ongoing basis with French. From ages 1-5 I lived in Toronto, and I guess I must have absorbed at least some awareness of French, because it has always felt and sounded very natural to me, and it came pretty easily when I took it in college. I can read simple texts slowly and my pronunciation is… OK for an American, let’s say.  I can also follow Eddie Izzard’s French routines.  :)  (“Mais, je suis le président de Burundi!“)

I am also somewhat involved with Japanese, between an old interest in Zen and a more recent interest in Shinto, and my Aikido studies (I enjoy some anime, but I’m too old to fall into the “anime generation” of Japanese language learners). I seem to grok the spoken language pretty well, based on working with the Pimsleur audio learning program… but I admit to being really daunted by the writing systems. With a fair degree of skull sweat I have learned the hiragana characters, and the first couple kyo of katakana, but it’s hard for me; I know maybe a score of simple kanji (including the numbers 1-10).

Those are the languages with which I have had some sort of serious engagement; and I still wander back and forth between them fairly aimlessly. No one language truly stands out as clearly the most relevant to my life, and I don’t have an obviously compelling external reason to choose one over another. And yet, I feel more and more that I ought to; that not having a second language in this day and age, when I clearly have the means to do so, is rather sad. Also, as I grow older I can see ahead to where my horizons will begin to close in, and learning another language seems to me a good way to keep them wider longer, and possibly help delay or prevent the onset of dementia (which claimed the last few years of my grandfather’s life, and frightens me much more than the prospect of physical disability or, in some ways, even death). The science on this last is far from clear, but on a commonsense use-it-or-lose-it basis it makes sense to me.

So, how to choose?

I am interested in French and various Francophone cultures, and I appreciate the extent to which a working knowledge of French would ease travel in many parts of the world (that I may or may not ever have the opportunity to go to). I am interested in many, many aspects of Japanese culture, but I don’t actually need to know the language to study Aikido, beyond the technical vocabulary. I do, however, need the language if I ever want to study Shinto at any real depth. If I was still considering conversion to Judaism, obviously learning Hebrew would be an advantage… and so on.

I think the main thing that troubles me is the question of applicability.  I’m not talking about “marketability”, that favorite buzzword of language schools and advice-givers – if that was the case I’d tackle Chinese, Arabic or Hindi. Rather, is it reasonable to expect that, whatever language I learn, I would be able to apply it in my day-to-day life in some fashion?

By that measure, it seems that Spanish should rocket to the top of the list, since we have a large Latino population in this region and opportunities to use that language are fairly readily available. There are two or three free Spanish-language newspapers and a couple of radio stations in town that provide no-cost reading and listening practice, and I see people who appear to be Hispanic almost every day… and if the pessimists are right and the wheels do completely fall off the global economy, then a huge population of native speakers is right here and not across the ocean. I even have an academic interest that would be facilitated by learning Spanish (and Arabic) – I’m fascinated with the period of al-Andalus, commonly called “Moorish Spain”.

And yet… I do pick at Spanish from time to time, but I have no passion for it. Maybe it’s a legacy of having to take Spanish in high school when I wanted to learn Latin, maybe it’s my media-fed impression that most of Latin America is beautiful, hot and extremely dangerous… I don’t really know why, but I’ve never been able to get fired up about learning and speaking Spanish, and I think that without passionate interest any language study is ultimately doomed to fail.

I’m much more emotionally invested in French, but then the applicability issue rears its head; I have passion *and* some applicability around Japanese, but the prospect of learning the kanji really does scare me. If any of you who have mastered a second language (or happen to be linguists, Jeff… :) have some sage advice, I’d love to hear it!

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10 Responses to ““dating” languages”

  1. Nettle said

    I entertain myself sometimes by watching Spanish-language TV and am always surprised by how much I understand. I’ve never studied Spanish but would like to, for the reasons you name, to be able to watch the soaps (though I fear they might become less fun if I understood them better) and to read Spanish literature. I can read most romance languages, at least enough to get the general meaning, just from having gone steady with French and Attic Greek and having an extended flirtation with Latin.

    I ought to be more interested than I am in the Celtic languages – I especially would like to be able to read the Mabinogion – but for some reason I am utterly intimidated by the concept of teaching myself medieval Welsh without some kind of academic support. I’m just not sure I’m up to it. It’s like having a crush on a movie star – you might really want it, but you know you can’t have it.

  2. R.D. Hammond said

    French is still a good secondary lingua franca, and it’s spoken in a lot more places than you’d expect. English is slowly taking over, but you can’t go wrong with French. (Or Spanish, but you already touched on that.) I came in cold to my university not knowing a word of French and graduated with a French minor. In the process, I managed to pick up enough to be conversational with Parisians, travel around freely without being detected as specifically American (I was just “that foreign guy” until I switched to English), and visited the grave of one of my heroines, George Sand.

    So, you can still do a lot with French. :)

    For those learning languages on a budget, do you know about LiveMocha? I’ve only dabbled in their Italian classes, but they’ve been fantastic so far. (Of course, I wish they’d add a Greek section, but what can one do.)

    Nettle, I found learning Irish to be a huge pain but Welsh to go much more sensibly. As insane as it looks, Welsh suddenly makes a lot more sense when you discover how “w” works (either in its standard form as a consonant or “oooo” as a vowel). Irish has the other problem; “Go raibh ma hagat” may look tame outside of “bh”, but I’ve heard it pronounced ways which make no literary sense whatsoever.

  3. Vitor said

    I didn’t choose my second and third languages (Spanish and english besides native german), so I can’t say for sure how to approach such a decision.

    However, what I have realized is that different languages each have their own ways of expressing ideas, and this fact shapes the thoughts of those who speak, write and think in that particular language. Therefore, a good way to choose might be according to the way a language makes you feel. Sit with it for a while, think in it, feel its uniqueness from within, and let it reveal its true nature to you.

  4. executivepagan said

    Nettle,
    I had some interest in learning Irish back in the mid-80s, when I was first getting into Celtic music, but it wasn’t strong enough to sustain the first shock of grappling with the spelling. If I were to learn a Celtic language now it would be Welsh (and possibly Breton as a third).

    RD,
    Good to know that about Welsh, actually. I have a book on it… but I never got into it seriously. Regarding French, I’ve always thought of it as the “language of culture and travel” myself, but I’ve also always been concerned that that was a leftover attitude that’s 50 years out of date. :)

    I’ll definitely check out LiveMocha; I’ve done some online learning stuff with Japanese, and am familiar with the “Ice Mocha” kanji learning tool, but I don’t think they’re related. Thanks!

    Vitor,
    Willkommen! I am certainly aware that as a native English speaker I have a luxury that many others don’t; that’s part of my problem, in a sense. Thank you for the excellent suggestion. I had not thought of deliberately considering how different languages make me feel, but now that I do think of it I see that it has been an unconscious part of my decision making process. I like your idea and I will try it out!

    I’ve often seen other people make the same point you make about language shaping thought. In one of the World in Words podcasts I was listening to just last night, in fact, they interviewed a researcher in bilingualism who was talking about the way that fully bilingual people often exhibit different personality traits in their different languages.

  5. Kullervo said

    I still speak German pretty well, though not nearly so well as at the end of my mission… and even then I didn’t speak it nearly so well as I thought. I pretty much had a complete mastery of conversational German, but as soon as you got into a specific subject-area other than Mormonism, I was lost.

    If I could master every language I was interested in I would know classical Greek and Latin, Sanskrit, Finnish, Spanish (for practicality’s sake), Kurdish, and probably a smattering of French, Korean, and Japanese.

  6. executivepagan said

    Heh! No doubt. I keep coming up with more things that I love about Japanese; and something else occurred to me this morning. In addition to being wary of trying to learn kanji, I think I’m hesitant about Japanese because learning it would be purely for personal satisfaction, as they say, and it feels somehow “wrong” to spend that much time learning something without a “higher” motive… I’m sure that’s a legacy of my upbringing. Plus, it occurs to me that I could probably become functional in any two given European languages in the time that it would take to become functional (never mind fluent) in Japanese.

    In the meantime, of course, I learn nothing, and just keep getting older. :(

  7. Feral Boy said

    R.D. Hammond said:

    “Irish has the other problem; “Go raibh ma hagat” may look tame outside of “bh”, but I’ve heard it pronounced ways which make no literary sense whatsoever.”

    Not to mention there is a LOT of regional variation in pronunciation.

    My theory is that when the Christian monks first started writing down the Gael’s legends*, one day some of them got
    stinking drunk and said, “You know what would be real funny?
    Let’s add a whole lot more vowels, and not pronounce ANY of them the way they’re written! And … And ‘fh’ — that’s … that’s … NOTHING! … And the plural of ‘ban’ should be ‘mna’ (heh! heh! heh!)…” and so on … And in the morning, they opened their eyes and discovered written Irish — which made their heads ache even more!

    *(since they were adamantly non-literate & valued memory more than books)

  8. Feral Boy said

    Nice to talk with you again!

    I got interested in learning at least some Irish to learn what
    some of the tune titles I was finding meant. Also, was somewhat
    interested in getting “Sidhe Beg Sidhe Mor” translated. I sent
    the words to a friend a LONG while back who did speak Irish (we
    got together a scratch ceili band for a friend’s wedding), he said
    it was kind of like translating Chaucer for him — things changed in a couple of hundred years. I looked through a bit of the “Tain Bo Cuilighe” (probably mangled the last bit there), and the early medieval Gaelic doesn’t seem quite as bad as what it’s evolved into.

    Anyhow, I got most of what I wanted from it — basically glimpses of meaning. I think in order to immerse yourself more, there has to be a need–going to live in a particular culture, or a genuine desire to interpret an author’s thoughts without going through an intermediary. You’re still limited even there, because you are translating from your cultural perspective (as expressed by the language). I think the best you can do is have a translation by a native speaker into your own language. Those words express the meaning from their perspective, and if something is a bit off, your understanding of English can usually interpret it from there.
    (Like “Engrish”!)

    David Sedaris wrote a book on his experience trying to learn French called “Me Talk Pretty One Day”. As the title suggests, he said in an interview that when he speaks French, he sounds like an evil baby :D

  9. executivepagan said

    Me Talk Pretty One Day

    That essay is absolutely brilliant – but you really have to hear it to get the full effect.

  10. Feral Boy said

    There was a discussion the other day on NPR about how noun gender affects the speaker’s perceptions:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102518565

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