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!