Aspiring Polyglot: Usefulness

I’ve recently set up a Quora account. Quora is a place where people can ask questions – often questions that, yes, they could have googled themselves – and get answers from people. These answers have the benefit of bringing a very personal aspect with them, being more practical than theoretical.

When signing up, Quora asks you about your areas of interest, and your expertise. Being a fan of languages, I signed up for plenty of language stuff. As a consequence, one of the questions I see most often is something along the lines of „what language should I learn next in terms of usefulness“, sometimes worded as a direct comparison, such as „is it better to learn French than Spanish?“ Two thoughts usually go through my head:

  1. Why is this even an either/or question?
  2. What do you mean, useful? How can any language not be useful?

I am immediately aware of a lot of privilege when contemplating my automatic reaction. First, because I already know the „useful“ languages, aka those that, combined, pretty much cover the entirety of the globe, I have the luxury of completely disregarding the perceived usefulness of any tongue. How did I get there? By learning the language of all the colonial powers, of course. Their languages have been forced on everybody, so everybody understands them now. Thanks, white people!

The other thing is that I have a gift for languages and learn them easily. So, either/or situations never come up. I simply have a list of the languages that I still consider personal must-haves, and they get assigned a chronological priority. Subject to change.

  1. Russian*
  2. Korean Japanese*
  3. Basque
  4. Hindi
  5. Finnish
  6. Lakota (or whatever Native American language I can get books about)
  7. Japanese Korean
  8. Rumantsch
  9. Arabic
  10. As yet undetermined African languages

(* = currently studying)

Of all of these, Russian and Japanese can certainly be considered „useful“, as they cover quite a bit of territory, or are of relevance in matters of business. Rumantsch, on the other hand, is completely useless; not only do all native speakers also speak another language (German or Italian, usually), but it’s also only spoken in a tiny corner of an already rather small country. It is a dying language, another victim of globalisation. Which is why it automatically makes my list of worthy causes.

Mostly, I recommend learning a language because you want to connect with the culture that speaks it. You see, language is identity. There are only two ways to know a people: by their language and their food. Hearing the original words not only gives you the meaning of those words, but also the unspoken subtext that is lost in translation. The manner in which something is phrased gives us not only content, but the „flavour“ of the content in that language. You will notice, for example, that while swearing is common in both Spanish and French, profanity in used far more freely in Spain, even in every day situations where no one is angry or upset; it’s just how that country works. Is it indicative of character that the Germans came up with the word for Schadenfreude? Why do German-speakers and hispanophones feel ashamed on behalf of others (fremdschämen/vergüenza ajena), while the speakers of English do not? Is it really true that the Basque had no concept of oppression before they met the Spanish („opresioa“ is a derivative of the Spanish word „opresión“)?

That last example, of course, goes beyond language as a cultural question. Language as a tool has long been used to nefarious purpose. The difference between a rebel and a terrorist is in the political agenda of the speaker. Language has the power to shape our world. The Trump administration is already employing Doublespeak, by presenting us with „alternative facts“. Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, back in the day, liked to distinguish between „inoperative statements“ and the actual truth, once they’d been found out. The more languages you know, and the better you know those languages, the less you can be fooled by translations and biased „explanations“. You have no idea what you’re missing as long as you’re limited to one language.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Go and build your arsenal.

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