The Importance of Language

I’ve always had a real desire to learn other languages, and I think I have a pretty good knack for it when I actually get into intensive study. Over the course of my schooling, I’ve studied French (the most), Spanish, and Portuguese (while abroad). The only language I’ve really managed to retain is Portuguese given that it’s the only language that I had to learn in the context of actually living and not just with conjugation tables in a classroom. I can still read French and Spanish pretty well, and if spoken slowly I can somewhat understand, but any attempt to speak it will come out as Portuñol or Françagese (or whatever you wanna call it)

Anyway, this summer, which hasn’t even ended yet, has really emphasized to me the importance of language. How powerful language is. While in Taiwan I couldn’t even pretend to read, speak, or understand ANY mandarin, but still managed to get by on nonverbal communication or very broken English. That exercise by itself was such a lesson—how to break down your speech and gestures to the fundamentals, leaving aside all the extra fluff that you include in your conversations that just serve to embellish and make you sound more intelligent. By the end of those three weeks I had to reteach myself English so that I could start speaking in full sentences again.  Being there prompted my first real desire to learn a non romance-based language.

But now being in South Africa has been a whirlwind. The country itself has 11, ELEVEN, official languages. And almost every person (well lets say black person) speaks at least three: English, Afrikaans, and their regional language. Let me just rattle off these languages: English and Afrikaans as I’ve said, plus Ndebele,  isiXhosa, Zulu, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda, and Tsonga. There are still many more spoken here that aren’t officially recognized.

Side note: apparently I’m sufficiently ambiguous in my african ancestry to blend into many different settings if I don’t speak. In Brasil people assumed I was a native, and even after speaking with a weird accent they just assumed I was from one of the Portuguese speaking African countries. I didn’t think too many people would assume I was south african, although there is enough variety in phenotype down here that anything is possible.  But in the last 3 weeks, I’ve been almost overwhelmed by the number of people who have spoken Xhosa to me in passing or have come up to me for conversation in Xhosa. Their reactions when I don’t respond or stare at them blankly, were usually that of sheer confusion, like why was I being rude and ignoring them.

Xhosa is the first language I’ve heard communicated that involves clicks. The complexity of trying to parsel that language is insane. People have been trying to teach me Xhosa and I cannot make those three different clicking sounds for my life, let alone with the same volume and intensity that they do in just casual conversation. So now I want to learn Xhosa or some other African language. I mean Swahili would probably be more useful in terms of numbers of people, but right now I want to get those clicks down.

At the same time, my attendance at these conferences have brought French back into my life. At the IPHU, there was a back corner table that everyone just referred to as “the francophones.” The entire two week period they spent plugged into their radios listening to simultaneous translation of everything being said. But they were right on board with the conversation because they had plenty of input (Big ups to the translators!). But part of their being grouped as “the francophones” also created an inevitable bit of isolation. They typically stayed with each other, and in general, the rest of us didn’t make the most concerted efforts to try and get to know them. Some people did (mostly those who had some working base of French) and some of the more outgoing French speakers made exchange more possible, but overall, they did all their group projects together and there was very little intermingling.

Towards the end of the IPHU I began to get frustrated that there was an entire group of people that I didn’t even know. So I just said ‘hi’ one day. And actually, most of them spoke some English, which I would never have known if I hadn’t approached them. For some of them, we could carry on a pretty decent conversation, and for others, we were limited to ‘hi, my name is,’ ‘how are you?’ and ‘what country are you from?’  But what was more important, was that it really pushed me to try and remember parts of all those years of French class. I actually understood a lot more than I could iterate, especially when they spoke slowly. But I did attempt to speak. I’m sure that I sounded absolutely crazy at times, and when words wouldn’t come to the forefront of my memory I played pass the dictionary.

Honestly, I think the attempt at trying to communicate with them meant more than successful communication. Successful communication was just an added bonus. It would have been easy to just exchanging polite smiles, and then continue on in my conversation with other English speakers while they stood there pretty lost in the dialogue. Taking the time to try and meet them halfway opened up a whole new group of friends and colleagues. I think (I hope) they knew that I was genuinely interested in getting to know them by embarrassing myself with my bad French, because they opened up, and tried to help me with french words and pronunciation and asked my help with English. It was fun trying to cross these language barriers. And, consequently, now I spend half my life facebook chatting with them with an extra window open to google translate (I know, I’m cheating).   So now, coming full circle, I feel drawn to start studying French again.

The point is, language is so important. Without being able to communicate across languages the events of the past 2.5 weeks would have been inaccessible to large groups of people. Sure, we could create an environment that forces everyone to speak one language, which would most likely be English given how things are going. I mean it would be easier, right? But then you lose the richness of other languages and the different forms of expression, and furthermore you lose diversity. English is such a privileged language and we  speakers aren’t really forced to learn other languages, yet we expect everyone else to learn English.

I’ve always joked about wanting to be able to speak like 5 different languages, but now I feel compelled. I’m pushed to speak life into the Boren fellowship: I will be in Mozambique for a year learning Portuguese starting next September. I’m motivated to take advantage of as many opportunities to learn other languages as possible undertake more self-study.

If only someone would pay for me to go to a different country every year and a half to learn another language, I would gladly do so. Does anyone know anything about that?

On my short list: Portuguese, French, Spanish, Mandarin, some African language (I don’t know yet), and Arabic

I’ll take donations!