Thursday, July 14, 2016

Glossomania: A (Somewhat Rambling) Set of Reflections on Language Learning

Oxford psalter, 13th century, Morgan Library (MS M.43 fol. 9v).
I feel a greed for languages the way I used to feel a greed for books, the way that other people feel a greed for money. A greed for languages is really a greed for time—the time to learn the languages, then use them. Wanting to learn more languages is a way of spitting in the face of death.

We need to dispel the myth that it takes a special intelligence or aptitude to learn languages. It doesn't. J├╝rgen Leonhardt, in his wonderful book Latin: Story of a World Language, points out that, before the rise of the nation-state, polyglossia was the norm, and still is for many people around the world in linguistically diverse regions: ordinary people—merchants and workers and farmers—spoke (and speak) multiple languages for economic survival—not just an elite or scholarly class.

Modern America, where polyglossia is seen as an unusual attainment, is the exception, not the rule. In modern America, if you speak multiple languages, it probably means that you are either an immigrant or someone with an unusually good education, or both. The people who have learned even the most halting English on the go through economic necessity deserve the respect we accord scholars (or used to, anyway).

Of course, it is a privilege to be able to learn languages for fun, not utility.

To address someone in their language is a sign of respect—your language was worth my time to learn. It pains me when I cannot offer this form of respect. Every language is worth learning. Even (especially) if it only has a couple dozen speakers left on the planet, every language is worth learning. We are handicapped by the limited capacities of our minds and our lack of time.

Learning languages takes time, time which many people do not have. If you work a hard job, it is the last thing you want to do in the evening; if you have dependents, then where would you find the time at all? Most language learning has been compelled by an acquiescence to economic reality, but there is an aspect that rebels against the merely practical: a thing that it does not make sense to do, but that one does out of love, against the grain. It is what you salvage when you are not working.

What I want is a world where languages are seen as just another ordinary lifelong hobby, like dancing or drawing or birdwatching. 

Dancing is a good metaphor: dancing with mouth, with mind, in the case of sign languages, with hands, with symbols generally.

I am not especially good at languages. I am terrible at listening. Mediocre at speaking. But I learn out of love.

When we learn a language, we are returning ourselves to the moment of acquisition in childhood, to a Wordsworthian state, reaching for the light of a Benjaminian reine Sprache.

Returning yourself to the earliest stages of linguistic competence is returning yourself to the vulnerability of childhood, when you did not always have the words for your thoughts. You make yourself reliant on the charity of others.

Translating for my parents in France, it was like we had switched roles. In Korea, it felt like I had lost fifteen years, and had become a little boy shown around by adults. 

Everyone worries that they sound like a fool in an acquired tongue. The greatest lesson that language learning imparts is humility. Most people cannot bring themselves to feel so humble or so vulnerable. The people who humble themselves into a second (or third, or fourth) language as immigrants out of economic necessity are the salt of the earth. Theirs is the kingdom of God.

I have heard extended family members complain about the accents of service workers—Latinx, Indian, at fast food, on customer service hotlines ("Why don't they learn English?")—not thinking that they have learned more than the average English speaker has ever tried. 

A friend once told me that there are Midrashic commentators who hint that Babel was not a curse but a blessing—God relieving us from the monotony of monoglossia. Monoglossia made humans proud: polyglossia gave us the gift of humility.

It is worth it to learn a little bit of a language, even if you lose it, even if you never use it, for the same reason it is better to learn to dance just for one's wedding than not to dance at all, or to play just one song on the piano than not at all. It is its own source of value.

(Tones are not hard. Tones only require practice.)

In so many Indo-European languages, the word for "language" is the word for "tongue" (even English has this echo)—"mother tongue," "speaking in tongues." That's because it is like having an additional body part.

"O for a thousand tongues to sing my Great Redeemer's praise," goes the old hymn. It expresses a belief that the most intense experiences cannot be adequately expressed in a single language. Even if we know only one language, we can feel what it is like to grasp for more when we feel that words are not enough: it is the longing to have more words. 

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps you'll like to read this piece -