Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

4 Reasons You Should Learn a Provincial Language from India

“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”

If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.

As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”

So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.

And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all

“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”

It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”

Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.

As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.

Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.

 

  1. India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.

 

Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.

I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).

As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.

Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)

Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!

The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!

In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.

 

They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!

I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!

 

  1. The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!

 

In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.

 

The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Have Fun.

Tee Hee.

 

In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.

Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.

The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.

There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).

No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!

 

  1. Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!

 

India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!

And that’s just the beginning.

Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).

India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!

All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!

Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!

Speaking of which…

  1. Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!

I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!

Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)

India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!

Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!

Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.

A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!