“One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland –– and no other.” –– Emile Cioran
We're living at a weird time when it comes to the question of learning a new language. On the one hand the world is becoming so globalized, so intercultural, and so communicative, that there has never been a more relevant time to learn Korean or Farsi or Finnish. On the other hand, digital tools for translation––both in written and spoken forms––are becoming so capable and intuitive that language is no longer the high water mark for understanding a culture.
For centuries of especially European history, learning languages was a crucial part of being an educated and informed person. After all, in a world full of different languages, it was a necessity to be able to communicate. But in a bizarre way, global society has actually made us LESS dependent on learning a foreign language. English has become the internet's lingua franca, and tools like Google translate and other translation software has made navigating multi-lingual spaces easier. And tools like Duolingo give us exactly the amount of language access we need, which seems to be enough Spanish or French or Mandarin for our vacations. Language courses and requirements are disappearing from schools and unless you are born into a family that speaks a language different from the culture around you, its harder and harder to learn.
This is a real shame. Because the reality is that language is amazing. It dictates everything about how we experience the world, including, but not limited to what we say to ourselves in the mirror, how we dream, how our very thoughts form. And yet it is absolutely second nature, and unless you pause to think about it, you can go through your entire life without realizing that language is the lens for everything you've ever felt or thought or done. Whether burning your hand or looking out over a foreign landscape or telling your crush you like them, everything you have to express about any of those experiences has to be conveyed through language. And the most important reason to learn a language is because it can change who you are. More than reading, more than traveling, more than anything else you can do, learning to speak another language teaches you another way to see the world.
We use the phrase “code switch” to describe how people from different cultures, classes or social locations can shift from one way of being to another. A language is a code like no other, and it is one that, if you can learn to switch into it, you can learn how the codes that seem to be so deep in defining us are actually arbitrary and insubstantial. Its like learning how to do a very special kind of magic. And it strikes me that there are 4 main ways to guide you in learning a different language.
You can pick up a language that you sorta got into years ago.
If you grew up in America and are now in your mid-20's or older, there's a good chance you took, say, 2 years of high school Spanish. Unless you chose to go with another language specifically (in which case this post may be preaching to the choir), Spanish is a language many people fall into because sometimes it is the ONLY option. And if you spent some time with the language, you may have retained more than you think and you are already down the road. If that's you––and especially in the case of Spanish for Americans––going back to your notes or your textbook or whever you stopped is a hugely valuable step you can take.
You can learn a language for a big trip you'd like to take.
Perhaps you have no interest in the language you started learning in your youth. And that's totally fine. But perhaps, instead, there is a place that has always been THE place you want to go. The place of your dreams, where you feel like you might fit into perfectly. Maybe that is the riverbanks of Paris or the cafes of Vienna. Or maybe its the canoe markets of Thailand, or the plains of Argentina. Wherever it is, that place has a language, and if you really do aspire to go there, experiencing that place with the local language as part of your personal repertoire will make it unbelievably more worthwhile. So, if you aspire to travel––especially if the chance to do so seems like a long way off––you have every reason in the world to learn a language.
You can learn a language for a book or author you'd like to read.
Imagine that you didn't know English. Would it be worth learning in order to read Shakespeare?
Or, maybe you aren't the traveling type. Maybe you are more of a homebody with an expansive imagination––someone who loves to live through the expressions of others in writing or music. If you are privileged enough to speak English well enough to comfortably read it, translations offer you all kinds of opportunities to read things that are in foreign languages. But translation is not text. And where poetry is concerned, translation is a paltry imitation at best. So is Rimbaud or Neruda or Goethe is your thing, you have every reason in the world to make learning their language part of how you appreciate their art.
You can learn a language to work with people who live near you.
If travel and literature are off the table for you, there's increasingly a really good reason that learning a new language will not go to waste. And that is that communities from all over the world move and settle all over the place, and one of the most respectful, most democratic, most reaching-out thing a person can do is understand their neighbors. And this means learning a new language. In many parts of America, Spanish is a terrific to understand a huge part of our country's population. But where you, it may be that another community is more relevant and gives you opportunities to learn a different kind of language altogether. Where I grew up, Spanish and Haitian Creole were dominant. If you are living in the Twin Cities, there is a huge Somali population. If you are from Rhode Island or Cape Cod, Portugese has long been the local “second” language. Whatever it is, having the chance to connect with other people by approaching them in their own language is at the very essence of breaking down our human differences.
A Few Notes on How to Learn a New Language
- Learning languages are tricky, but once you learn how languages work, they get easier. So brush up on your grammar and get ready to think about mechanics.
- Book learning is good, but real life is better. And many venues for learning languages––learning annexes, community colleges, other institutions––emphasize this. Find partners who are learning or, even better, find a native speaker of the language you are learning, and start talking!
- TV and media are your friends. You can learn a lot from Youtube videos, movies with subtitles, and other venues where the language in question is spoken. I had a friend in Florida learn Spanish entirely from watching Telemundo. It is very much possible.
- Find your passion. Don't learn a language as a chore. And don't learn a language out of a sense of obligation. The learning itself will change you in huge, meaningful ways. So, find something you care about. If it's Sanskrit, let it be Sanskrit. If it is Quebecois, then so be it. Let your interest guide you.