Sunday, October 14, 2012

Du må studere et fremmedspråk. 别说“没有时间。”

Everyone needs to learn a second language. 

I don't care if all you want to do is stay in the United States and study English-language stuff.

Learning a modern language is an incredible intellectual exercise - and really important for understanding one's own culture as well. One becomes much more appreciative of one's own taken-for-granted cultural and linguistic background after having to switch one's mind to another language, another mode of speech, another culture, and another worldview.

There's also the fact that it makes you more employable, staves off Alzheimer's, is fun, makes research easier...the list goes on and on.

Notes: 

- The nonsense of not learning a foreign language because one is "too old" is outdated and a crummy excuse at best. Language learning moves in waves, not quite age. The age thing relates to certain modes of internalization ... and kids sometimes have trouble learning other tongues too.

Anecdote: I've watched a 40-year-old monoglot gain strong proficiency in French in a year.

- "Everyone speaks English" is true in the sense that "every Jew keeps kosher" or "every blonde is Nordic" - a sweeping generalization that is totally false. Furthermore, I've done enough re-translations at various jobs to know that so-called "proficiency in English" can be a highly subjective measure.

-"I don't have time" is disproven if I see a single Farmville status on your Facebook.

(If you are concerned for time, pick a language generally considered to be more straightforward for English native speakers. I recommend a Scandinavian language, French, or Malay in that case. ASL is not as easy as it might seem.)

- "I'm not good at languages" is usually a reflection of the learning method rather than you. You are not that hopeless. Have some confidence!

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Other notes:

1. "Useful" languages are not always necessarily the best thing to learn. You have to have genuine interest in the country and the language to really be able to learn a "useful language" to useful ability. 

I am fairly fluent in Mandarin, which is the current useful language in vogue, and as a result, I've been in a lot of Mandarin classes (we're talking north of 1,500 hours of formalized study alone). I have watched hundreds of students start and drop Mandarin because of either perceived difficulty, lack of time, or most notably, lack of motivation. If you're not genuinely interested, don't take Mandarin.

For reference, a rough estimate indicates that 85% of students who start Mandarin at the University of Chicago do not reach a level of what I'd call "useful proficiency." (I define useful proficiency as B2 or above on the Common European Framework.)

Secondly, most languages are useful if you make them useful. Sure, most Swedes speak fairly proficient English. But if you choose to do a lot of work on/with/in Sweden, Swedish can be quite useful. (Also, if you are a murder-mystery nerd like myself, Swedish is rather "good to know.")

On the other hand, so-called useful languages all have wonderfully diverse cultural, economic, and social backgrounds to engage with. It is very difficult to find absolutely nothing of interest in the Spanish-speaking world. 

2. Even if you are completely and only into the Anglosphere, or even just the United States, there are languages that can suit your interests. English is not only a living, spoken museum of fifteen centuries of linguistic influences, but also offers links to other languages and cultures around the world. Furthermore, the cultures of the Anglosphere often operate in more than English alone - reference Wales and Welsh, much of English noble culture and French, and American borderlands with Spanish. Hell, there are some really cool opportunities in this regard - for example, if you're very interested in New Zealand, a country which has a far lower language proficiency rate than the US, Maori is definitely something to consider learning.

And of course, there's American Sign Language - a fascinating and complex language spoken right here in the good ol' U. S. of A.

3. Do not be ashamed of simply learning an ethnic language. If that makes you happy, go for it. I've seen a lot of Jews receive harsh scoldings for learning Hebrew or Yiddish, or Polish-Americans for taking Polish. Why? It's not Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic. Well...as far as I see it, if someone is more engaged with their home culture and wishes to take the ancestral tongue, it makes more sense then for said student to study said language, since the level of proficiency - and resultant intellectual exercise - is likely to be far higher.

4. Latin, Ancient Greek, and Akkadian are all nice, but you really should learn a modern language too. Much of the intellectual exercise of learning a foreign tongue - the move  into another cultural framework, the psychological stress of reformatting your personal expression - is lost in ancient tongues. By all means, take that Coptic class - but you should really consider learning something modern too.

5. Be forewarned that what some consider to be an easy language may be hard for you, and vice versa. For example, Spanish is widely considered to be easy, but I find that language ridiculously difficult at times. On the other hand, I have had not too much trouble with Norwegian - a language with a ridiculously irregular orthography and somewhat irksome pronunciation. 

More extreme, my roommate is driven absolutely crazy by French or Spanish grammar, but can hold forth quite well about the supposed ease of Japanese.

6. If you want to learn an obscure language, go you! Just be prepared to have to search for resources quite intensively. 

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