I started thinking about language the other day. More specifically, I started thinking about “foreign” languages. About languages other than the one in which you were (presumably) raised. Of course, me being me, that train of thought started to morph — is still morphing and evolving — so we’ll just have to see where this post actually ends up going…
There was a BBC story the other day, one that got a lot of play, on whether or not British kids were even willing to try and learn a foreign language anymore. That same article could well be written of the US, too, I should add.
Now, keep in mind, I’m in no way a neutral party in this. I love languages. I love learning them, I love speaking them, I love thinking in them. And yes, it is true that when you start to dream in a language, you have finally internalized it…
My degree in Linguistics aside, I’m lucky enough to be able to say that languages come easy to me. They come very easy. I can pick up basic phrases and vocab in an hour or two, and be fully conversational — if I’m immersed — in about two weeks. Although I have (sadly) let my array of skills atrophy a bit, I can still make my way fairly fluently in five different languages…and have a sixth that I could “bring back’ with some effort. I say that not to brag, but as background to why I simply cannot understand why you wouldn’t want to learn a different language.
I firmly believe that you can’t truly know a people or a culture until you can speak at least a bit of their language. The more fluent you are, the more you can come to know them. And no — not just no, but hell no — Google Translate is not a legitimate option. Any translation, even from a person with legit skills and experience, is necessarily inaccurate, especially if the languages are not immediately related. There is approximation and editing involved in all of it, and that changes things…sometimes massively.
Thankfully, there are real-world reasons, besides just innate desire and ability, that push folks to learn other languages. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve spent a lot of time in central and eastern Europe. Well, given the position and influence of English in the world, the folks in the Baltics and Poland and Czech have their kids in full English immersion programs, alongside learning their own native language, starting at age 5. Five.
That’s when you should be learning languages, by the way. Our brains at that age are still forming the basic neural pathways we will have for the rest of our lives as we become more active in learning to understand the world around us. What you learn at five will stick with you for the rest of your life because, quite simply, that’s how our brains are (literally) wired.
As an aside, here’s a key little travel tip for you: if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, and want to learn, listen to little kids. Watch and listen to four- and five-year-olds as they interact with each other, and with adults. The kids will use simple grammar and construction, as well as over-enunciating the words, because they are still learning to understand and be understood. The adults, in turn, will explain difficult words and concepts to the kids in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Bingo! Free language lessons! And you thought that two-hour train ride was going to be a waste…
Now, there are some schools/programs here in the US that do the same thing…but not nearly enough of them. There is no better way to grow a child than in a kindergarten/elementary-school program that fully immerses them in two (or even three!) languages throughout the week.
Shit, I kinda do the same thing even now by watching “foreign” movies/shows solely in their original language. If it’s a language I even kinda know, there are no subtitles. I just have to make do and follow along as best I can. If it is one I don’t know, I’ll leave the subtitles on until I start to pick up enough vocabulary to understand without them.*
*The non-verbal aspects are important here as well, by the way. A lot, and I mean A LOT, of the info in a movie or TV scene comes from non-verbal communication rather than dialogue.
I’ve mentioned before that the languages I speak, as well as my background, very much play a role in my writing. I made a conscious decision to use other languages and cultures (Japanese & Thai, if you’re wondering) as the basis for Connor’s society in Somewhere Peaceful to create a feeling of “otherness.” Just as importantly, however, I very specifically chose Japanese because there are concepts and feelings behind the (modified) real-world slang I use that don’t really have English equivalents.
Okay…so…my first fear as I started to write this post has held true: it turned left at Albuquerque and ended up being about something other than what I actually sat down to write about…
Welcome to my life.
Now get your ass out there and learn a new language! Once you get comfortable enough to start using it in your own writing, you will not regret it. That I promise you.