Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Benefits of language learning

Recently a young friend told me that he is beginning to learn the Polish language. His reason is that he knows a number people who are Polish and Polish-American, and is seeking to consolidate links of solidarity with them. My friend already knows French and Spanish (Romance languages), and Polish, a Slavic language, would represent a third language family contrasting with the other two he is acquainted with: Germanic (English) and Romance.

Reflecting on this matter I realized that the factors impelling one to learn a language other than one’s own are highly overdetermined. That is to say, there are many reasons for the endeavor that interlock in interesting ways. Here are a few of them.

1. One can enjoy the invigorating shift of perspective that comes from having familiar thoughts and deeds refashioned in another idiom. While this “estrangement” effect occurs to some extent with every new language one learns, it is more marked when one tackles those that are fundamentally different. For example, Latin, being a fully inflected language, offers this experience of difference in a more radical fashion than do its daughter languages of French, Italian and Spanish, where the grammar is closer to English. Turkish, an agglutinative language, offers yet another productive experience in creative strangeness.

2. One can savor the interlingualism that accrues from the intersection of two or more different tongues. For example, the English word “state” becomes état in French. Borrowed into German and capitalized (Etat) the term has the more restricted sense of the “government budget.” The English noun “cavalier” (stemming ultimately from caballus, the late Latin word for horse) is mainly historical in application. By contrast, the Spanish word caballero is very common; technically meaning “gentleman,” it can refer to any man, as seen in signs on toilets. In French “chevalier” is chiefly historical; however, even today one can be a chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

3. Study of words in related languages helps one to understand the historical vicissitudes of the English vocabulary. For example, in German the word selig means “blessed,,” a sense that the English cognate “silly” has lost; still one can grasp the connection (ignorance is bliss). The legal term “jury” derives from the French juré, sworn, because the jurors are sworn before they can assume their duties.

4. Another type of interlingualism uses the following principle. I am reasonably familiar with Dante's Divine Comedy in the original Italian and several English versions (including the Surfer Edition--don't ask). Sometimes, though, I dip into the text in French, German, or Spanish. As one might expect, the Spanish is closest to the original, but there are still many interesting variations.

5. Studying foreign languages allows one to access major literary works in the original. This effect is of course greater for languages that are historically important and have numerous speakers. However, studying languages with a relatively exiguous literature, such as Navajo or Latvian, may have other benefits.

6. Some feel the appeal of roots--that is, recapturing one’s perceived heritage. For example, my Italian conversation group includes a number of people of Italian background who did not learn the language as children, and are now seeking to acquire it. There are also religious affinities. Catholic schools have long emphasized the study of Latin, not only for its own sake but as part of the heritage of the church (even though mass is no longer said in that language). Somewhat similarly, Jewish parents may elect to send their children to Hebrew school. Of course, one may learn this language in order to read the bible or to travel in Israel.

7. Becoming fluent, at least somewhat, in another language may be a useful tool in business and diplomacy--not to mention spying and military analysis. Hence the Army Language School.

8. As advanced Western societies become more diverse, one may seek to learn a new language in order better to understand one’s neighbors. For this reason, lots of people are learning Spanish in the United States. Not many of these earnest folks, it must be confessed, become truly fluent. Still, as we see from the somewhat halting effusions of an Al Gore or New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, such efforts create a current of mutual sympathy.

As I noted at the outset, the benefits of learning other languages are many. I am sure that readers can supply some that I have missed.

On a personal note, I regret concentrating so much on the major languages of modern Western Europe. To be sure, I learned some Latin in college, and some ancient (and modern) Greek on my own. In my youth I dabbled in Esperanto. TraveIing in the Middle East, I acquired some tourist Arabic. I also had a semester of Mandarin Chinese in college. This last I am currently striving to improve.



Post a Comment

<< Home