The Case for Many Languages

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Antwerp Stadhuis, August 2013. Photo: Jared Gimbel

It is often Europeans that wonder why I would focus a lot of my efforts on many languages than all of my efforts on just a few. It is also often Europeans that wonder why I would even bother with a language with few speakers.

With people from the rest of the world, especially the United States, I don’t receive such reactions and encounter a lot less condescension. That isn’t to say that I haven’t received support for my efforts from my European peers—far from it.

But now I’m going to make the case as to why I studied many languages to small degrees (as well as getting very good at a handful of them) rather than just focusing all of my efforts on a few useful ones.

In my view, there are two goals to learning any language: (1) usage (conversations, bureaucracy, ordering food, and the like) and (2) the revelation of an entire new world.

Interestingly there are many people who just think that the first reason has any validity at all, and I’ve encountered this everywhere.

My last post was on the Greenlandic Language. I may have not had any conversations in it as of yet (although I have spoken it to people who did not understand it—namely, those who ask “How do you say XYZ in Greenlandic?”). However, the fact is that I have experienced music, TV shows, and other media that I just simply couldn’t have if I not learned the language at all. The Danish and the English translations just don’t cut it, if they even exist at all.

I only get one life, as do the rest of us.

There is only so much time I can spend in this world and I don’t want to give all of my effort to understanding just a small portion of the human experience. (It is true that I focus a lot of my cultural work on Europe, but this is because of the nature of my project and my work at the time being.)

When I talk about other countries and cultures that most people don’t know anything about, I usually think, “this entire world could be yours with even just minimal effort…even if just a part of it will suffice, it will change your life”

I’ve encountered many people who expressed a desire to learn one language or another. To have the desire is common. Acting on the desire isn’t. And if you have the desire, act on it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the time. Any small effort can be rewarded. You should be proud of your efforts, even small ones—and others will, too!

High-caliber polyglottery is effectively a juggling act. There are languages that I have forgotten because I can only juggle so much at a given time.

The Finnish Language was useful for what I have been doing for the past year and a half, but in my next MA Degree Project I can’t imagine that it would be as necessary for me as other languages. But in the event that I forget that language (or any other) and need it again, my latent knowledge is still there, waiting for it to be reactivated with noteworthy effort.

But even if you forget a language, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have some cultural context—and a good head start in the event that you want to take it up again.

I learned French as a child, and now I have forgotten almost everything, and Russian and Italian have gone similar ways in my life. I don’t see them as having been lost forever—I see them as waiting for me to come and pick them up.

But now I have to carpool other languages as my clients. One day I may drop a number of them off, but I can pick them up if I need them. I may have not learned all of them perfectly, but nothing is stopping me from bringing them up to a professional level if I need to—except for maybe procrastination.

Back on topic:

Languages are not just about usage.

They are about empathy with a culture.

They are about understanding how a culture relates to others.

They are about changing the way you see the world outside your own linguistic spheres.

If you look at the most essential words in any given language, they will, more often than not, not align with the most important ones in any other. One of the first words I learned in both Northern Sami and in Greenlandic was the word for reindeer. Obviously this word isn’t going to be as important in Israel.

While learning German, my first experiences were with urban vocabulary. With Swedish, it was with nature-oriented vocabulary. With Yiddish, words relating to religion are of primary importance. With Greenlandic? Not a chance.

(It occurs to me that I may be one of the only people on the planet that has a command of both Yiddish and Greenlandic. If there are any others, please let me know.)

KNR’s modestly successful TV show for kids, “Pisuttuarpunga” carries a completely different essence from America’s “Sesame Street”. Even if you compare the various international localizations of Sesame Street to one another (e.g. Israel’s “Rekhov Sumsum” or Norway’s “Sesam Stasjon”), it is obvious that there are differences and that the language makes the differences between the cultures even clearer.

In the professional world, there is one imperative: be useful.

Knowing a rare language to any degree will make you a commodity, whether you like it or not.

Learning many languages to okay degrees has enabled me to have an “I-Thou” relationship with many other cultures. My peers who study a handful of commonly studied languages to full professional proficiency tend to not have this—or they don’t have it the way I do. That isn’t to say that you should avoid that path—but be aware that being different will always give you the edge. Always.

Thanks to my excessive language juggling, I find myself very empathetic to other cultures and attuned to the human experience as a whole.

If that isn’t useful, I don’t know what is.

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2 thoughts on “The Case for Many Languages

  1. Michael B. says:

    Hi Jared!

    I have some interest in learning a language I know nothing about, and I think the way I’d like to start is to learn the basics of several candidate languages and then choose one. How do you (personally) start learning a language from scratch?

  2. Here’s what I do:

    First, I must entertain the sound of the language, whether it be from listenlive.eu, various video outlets, or anything else.

    Then, I will try an audio phrasebook or a few YouTube lessons on pronunciation until I master pronunciation (if it is a language with very simple pronunciation rules, like most), or until I get a general idea of what to expect from the spoken language (if it has harder pronunciation rules, e.g. Danish, Irish).

    Afterwards, I will use a combination of Spaced Repetition software (memrise.com and anki tend to work), notebook pages, and, of course, trying to replace the rote-memorization with immersion in native-language materials as soon as possible.

    Once you reach the immersion stage, it becomes a lot easier to pick up new words from context, especially if you speak closely related languages.

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