I had coffee this morning with some friends before I went to work and one of those good people used a word or two in Spanish and French. I speak a little Spanish and have been to France and the half of Belgium that is French speaking, and so I asked him if he spoke those languages. “No”, he replied, “I only know a word or two, but I do enjoy languages and find them easy to pick up.” I told my friend that I also enjoy languages, but I can’t say that I find them all that easy to “pick up”. As it turns out however I was not entirely truthful with my friend. It is not just that I enjoy languages; it’s more like I am fascinated by languages. In fact, I think languages form one of the most interesting parts of what it means to be a human being.
Many people have heard of the Hebrew story of the beginning of multiple languages. Long ago people on earth were getting together to do something their own way instead of the right way, very much like we do things today, and so God confused their speech to put a little stick into their spokes and slow them down for a while. The plan worked for a bit, but we soon found a way around that stumbling block and we’ve been merrily screwing things up ever since. I don’t think of those languages as being entirely a curse however.
The Linguistic Society of America claims that there are over seven thousand languages in the world, and I suppose that if anybody should know such a thing it would be a Linguistic Society of Just About Anywhere. This means to me that there are at least seven thousand groups of people ranging in size from the Mandarin Chinese with their teeming multitudes to the various dialects of the Sami, who together are fewer in number than my small church in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. These various people who speak Mandarin and Sami and all languages in between each have a view of the world, or perhaps it’s more like filters which shade their views of the world, that are uniquely common to each of those groups. That is to say that the Ibo of West Africa will see themselves, their relationship with each other and peoples around them, and the physical world in which they live with their creation story and purpose for existence that is as different from their Hausa neighbors as it is from the Yanomami of the northern Amazon.
I also believe that language is a two-way lens. The Yanomami see themselves and their place in the universe through their own particular perceptions and they express and reinforce those perceptions to each other through their language. Yanomami culture and survival are bound up together and expressed through their language, and they thereby define who they are and what they will peculiarly do to maximize the quality and survivability of their people group through the medium of their language, which will grow and change to meet the challenges of change which assail them as they become more in contact with a greater but sometimes subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) hostile world.
The other side of this language lens is available, although with considerable difficulty, to the outsider who wishes to gain insights into the heart and soul of what it means to be Yanomami. All that the outsider must do to gain this privileged glimpse into the soul of the Yanomami is learn their language. There, that was easy! Simply use a computer program for a ridiculously hight price and within six weeks you will be talking like a Yanomami and, if you purchase the companion program for a minimal extra cost, you will also be trained to walk like an Egyptian. In fact, I am offering this program at this very minute. Simply call 1-800 BULLS___T and operators are ready to tell you where to send your hard earned and utterly wasted dollars, euros, pesos, rupees, rubles, and yen. Sorry, but at this time I am not accepting the Drachma.
In fact, truly learning a language will take a great deal more work and personal investment than the average “Speak [Whatever] quickly” offer will actually provide. There is so much more to learning a language than simply taking an English phrase (my first language, so Ill use it for an example), such as “I think it would be cool if that stinking Obama (or Bush, or Whomever) administration would melt down, get it over with, and put us out of our misery”, and removing the english words and replacing them with roughly equivalent words from some other language. Let’s consider the case of the Tsogo language of some African Pygmies. A literal translation of the phrase mentioned above might go something like this: “It would be ________(Pygmies live in the equatorial forests of Africa. They have no concept of cold, or cool) if the government of this leader who smells really bad (maybe he has an ulcer that isn’t healing and the flesh is rotting?) would dissolve into a liquified state like fat that is cooked, which in some way would kill us.”
No, it simply will not do to learn a list of words. To learn a language one must also learn nuance; must learn to feel a word, to smell a phrase, to taste a metaphor and be moved by a simile, and thereby predict how your hearer will be moved by all of that as well. When you get to that point you can say that you have learned a language, and I would be so bold as to say that there are not more than a relative handful on our planet who can truly say that they speak a language that they did not grow up immersed in.
But cheer up. All is not lost. Fortunately there are few people who expect you to become that fluent in their language. I remember one trip that I made to the Mexican city of La Paz on the eastern side of the peninsula of Baja California. In that city, which draws a large number of American tourists for the sport fishing that is available in the Sea of Cortez, there was a restaurant called ” Senior Frog’s”. Beside the front door was a sign which read “We do not speak English. We will not laugh at your Spanish”. Beside the obvious contradiction that the sign was written in English, I have no doubt that the owners and staff of that restaurant spoke pretty good English if they wanted to. But the point was that the tourist was in the Mexicans’ country and they should not expect the Mexicans to speak another language. Go ahead. Learn to count to ten, and learn to say ‘taco and ‘enchilada’ and ‘cerveza’ and ‘donde esta el bano and a few other phrases and you’ll do just fine. In fact, they’ll probably speak English to you if you’ll at least try to speak Spanish.
That was my experience when my wife and I visited France. My wife speaks a serviceable amount of French but I speak very little, and so much of the time she did the talking and the French people were very polite and helpful, and obviously pleased that we were at least trying. Actually, I played a little trick on the French people. When my wife was not around and I needed to communicate with somebody I would begin with ‘Je ne parle pas francais. Parlez-vous espagnol?”, or “I do not speak French. Do you speak Spanish?” Most French people do know some English but very few speak Spanish. Then I would come back with “Parlez-vous anglais?”, or “Do you speak English?” In this manner I established that I am bilingual but not in French, thereby deflating the stereotype of the monolingual American expecting the whole world to learn English for my convenience.
This trick worked very well, and as a bonus one day when we were in the beautiful city of Beaune I used it in a wine shop. The owner, it turned out, DID speak Spanish. She was excited because she rarely got to use that language and I was excited because I could carry on a normal conversation with a French person. I also hoped that she would be so pleased with our conversation that she would give me a nice discount on some burgundy wine but, alas, that turned out to be a vain hope. As it was, this was one of the highlights of our trip.
As an interesting side note, a few years later I once again found myself using Spanish in a northern European city. This time it was Amsterdam, and that city is lousy with beggars. I would usually brush them off in Spanish, saying “Siento mucho, pero no hablo Ingles”. It usually worked but one time the person with his hand held out slipped effortlessly into perfect Spanish and continued with his appeal to separate me from my hard earned dollars. I found this immensely funny actually, having my bluff called so smoothly, and so In plain English I said “If you can beg in multiple languages brother, you can get a job.” The beggar suggested that I do something with myself that is physically not possible and I walked away enjoying a good laugh at the whole thing.
I know a word or phrase or two in seven different languages, and I can say that I relish every opportunity that I have to use any one of them. And that’s well and good; I only have to complete my learning of those languages and add to them over six thousand, nine hundred and ninety three others to get to where I want to be. No sweat! Actually, that would take an eternity to accomplish. Fortunately, I believe that eternity is exactly what is before me. After I leave behind this earthly veil of tears I rather suspect that my afterlife will be populated by men and women of all languages still speaking those languages.
People who think of afterlives and things like that frequently believe that there will be some sort of heavenly language, a great Esperanto in the sky, that will linguistically unite us once again into one big happy family, but I certainly hope not. I want to know the Yanomami in their own language. I want to know a Native American from Gipuy by learning to speak Tewa. I want to — well, you get the picture. Such a thing would take an eternity to accomplish, but then we would have an eternity to accomplish it. I would consider that to be beyond-time well spent.