Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

Here’s Why Corporate Power Doesn’t Want You To Learn Languages

It has been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected and I know I’m not alone in being positively furious, but in a way that my fury has further impassioned me to change the world.

One thing that I’ve brought into conversation, seldom with disagreement, is the fact that ever since that fateful night, I’ve been seeking to cut the toxic influences of American culture than enabled Donald Trump to happen (that is to say, sensationalism, the idea that money is life’s report card, conformity, extreme divisions within our society with not a lot of dialogue, being directed by mass media to be angry for the sake of being angry and not in a productive manner, among many other things).

After all, saying “Fuck you, Donald Trump” is easy. Looking at your life choices and realizing what sort of choices you can make to create a culture less likely to choose and promote someone of that sort takes effort and sacrifice.

All the while I see that America continues to be a land in which the dream that brought my ancestors here continues to be more and more elusive. Behind it all is a military-industrial complex, op-eds that seek to confuse, emotionally manipulate and gaslight the public, and a mass media culture so great that resisting it completely requires the self-discipline of a spiritual giant.

Granted, there are many aspects that I really like about American culture, and I have no doubt that my hyperpolyglotism came about in part because of the many intercultural conversations and intersections that only the United States can provide. But that’s for another time, although I realize that in order to criticize a society you need to affirm yourself as a friend of said society. And all things considered, I truly do love the United States, given as I may have not been given the opportunity to live had it never existed (given my Jewish roots).

One thing that I thoroughly dislike about it is the fact that I hear a lot of people say extremely predictable things, over and over again. This is in part because many people in this country read the exact same newspapers, watch the exact same television shows and consume many of the same contemporary popular songs. (People often ask me how on earth I can manage to learn so many languages to fluency and I tell them consistently that it requires you taking in entertainment in other languages and downsizing your entertainment intake in your native language. Guess how many people I’ve spoken to [outside of polyglot communities, that is] who have actually followed through on that plan after I told them what to do.)

Often I hear almost headache-inducing ideas of “you’re good with languages” or “I heard that it’s no use learning a language” or “I tried learning a language for a decade and I can’t speak any of it”. I know why I hear these same things continuously

And it’s primarily by design.

Look, if the ruling class in the United States truly wanted it, the secrets of Language Hackers and my friends at the polyglot conference would be known to 4 out of every 5 citizens living in this country. The knowledge is available freely on blogs in English. My advice is free and I’m glad to share any of my stories and the uglier sides of my struggles to fluency.

But instead, the same old myths persist.

Because a corporate dominated society doesn’t want a broad citizenry of open-minded languages learners.

Here’s why not:

 

  1. Income inequality is very much based on pitting people (or groups of people) against each other. Language Learners build bridges.

 

“The Arabs”, “The Russians”, “The Jews”, “The Iranians”, “The Europeans” … I’ve heard all of these referenced very frequently in dismissive tones in conversation from people in many different political arenas.

 

Truth be told, division is essential as a distraction tactic. This fear of the other also drives the military-industrial complex which is probably the one thing that has endangered the biosphere most severely in human history.

I’ve met language learners from all continents, from all over the globe. They’re certainly not perfect people, but they’re bridge-builders and peacemakers. They view people different from them as potential friends and hobbies, not something to spark fear. Many of them see themselves and doing “divine work” (even if they don’t believe in a higher power), and rightly so.

They learn about cultures that the corporate state boils down into stereotypes. They realize that problems are more readily solved with dialogue, understanding and respect than with force and violence.

They are the very antithesis of a system that keeps people divided and distrustful of one another.

 

  1. A lot of sensationalized news stories (many of their owners and writers also seeking to prop up income inequality and perpetuate it) strategically make people afraid of other places. Language learners recognize all countries of people with ordinary dreams.

 

I’ve met people from the majority of countries on this planet, thanks to my time in New York City. Believe me when I say that people are remarkably the same everywhere in terms of many things, although social conditioning is one aspect in which there is a lot of difference.

If you take away a lot of the mythologies that our various national and/or religious agendas have instilled into us, we are pretty much all the same.

And yes, there are hateful and destructive people on every corner of the globe, but they exist by virtue of the fact that, in some respect, they’ve been derived of something, whether it be economic opportunity or a caring support system, or even taken in by a system of “us vs. them” that is almost entirely promoted by self-serving politicians and people who want to keep the system in place in which the rich keep getting richer. And I haven’t even touched on limiting beliefs yet, the almighty slayer of dreams.

Our governments divide us but at our language exchange events and in our online forums, we’re bringing the world together. There’s difficulty in having such tasks come about, but almost all of us strive for it. And in a world in which any culture in the WORLD can be yours to explore within a few mouse clicks, YOU can be on the right side of history!

 

  1. Neoliberalism frames countries as their governments and economies foremost, rather than their cultural stories. Language learners get to the heart of places’ cultural stories that are often hidden.

 

“China’s gonna take over the world!”, “Saudi Arabia is an evil country!”, “Israel is a cancer!”, “Russia hates everything about the west”, and on and on and on.

Again, division at work. And yes, there are a lot of political problems present throughout the world, but seldom if ever do people investigate the cultural roots of conflicts and even more seldom do they try to administer dialogue and healing.

With language learning you can delve into the cultural story of anywhere you’d like, complete with its flaws and darkest chapters. Usually a lot of the “issues” that have come about in which people are afraid of other countries are present for reasons that are not visible on the surface. The path of least resistance is to be angry and call names. That’s what the system depends on, meaningless rage and emotional manipulation in which people are tricked into thinking that they’re helping when they’re actually not.

True peace doesn’t come about with divisions like this, it comes about through realizing that we have shared cultures and dreams that all humans understand. These commonalities are far stronger than our differences, however big a world of income inequality would like these differences to be.

 

  1. If enough people explore other places, even virtually, the entire framework of fear which serves as a distraction from the problems of capitalism will fall apart completely.

 After so many emotional headlines and frantic googling when I had Lyme Disease (believe me, you don’t want Lyme Disease) and again in the months leading up to Trump’s election as well as after it, it occurred to me that there was just a lot of … fearmongering…and not a lot of productive dialogue.

No doubt there is productive dialogue (that I have particularly found among independent journalists), but usually it’s just click-farming, dumbing down and making people more scared.

Right now at this very moment I remember when I met the Chief Rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. He told me boldly the following statement (and I PROMISE I’m not making this up!): “I’ve spoken to the most extreme Jihadist in the West Bank, and when I was done talking with him, he agreed that a Two-State Solution was the best possible outcome” (!!!)

In 2013, I couldn’t believe it. In 2017, I can. After having encountered tons of people throughout the world, I realize that if we just strip away our fears one by one, we’d lead fulfilled live of peace and harmony as a species from then on out.

But instead, our current system depends on fear. Fear to distract from the genuine problems of capitalism that threaten the future of our species. A good deal of that fear depends on misunderstanding other people.

I don’t misunderstand other people and other cultures, I only seek to explore. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have sneered at me telling me that I was fraternizing with “countries that hate Jews and Israel” (exact words).

Surprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone’s xenophobia, however microscopic it may be, can be whittled away to nothing with choosing to explore other cultures and languages. I’ve seen it happen. And close-minded people are created by being made to be fearful of others first and foremost. Being in other countries, I realized my fears about other places were largely just imagined.

Some of my acquaintances haven’t been as lucky to achieve this path to open-mindedness as I and my polyglot friends have, but it’s always available and we’d love to have you.

The world depends on your being an explorer.

So go explore!

just-visiting-in-jail

If you don’t explore, this might as well be you. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Cornish: Corny People? Cornland?

corny people edited

Up until half a year ago, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Cornish Language, although after that point I found out that it was one of several languages in Europe (Livonian and Manx Gaelic also come to mind) that had passed to the point of extinction and had been revived).

No doubt my adventures on Crowdin, that have come to a temporary halt as a result of examinations and final papers, had spurred me into curiosity, which tends to attack me and bring me in odd directions in the most unpredictable of ways.

Chances are that you might not know what Cornish is, either, so allow me to explain.

About 1,000 years ago, if you were to look at a map of Britain (the Island that has England, Scotland and Wales on it, minus the minor Islands claimed by these countries), you’ll notice that Wales is not conquered by the English, and there is a comparatively small area below (a little peninsula that stretches out in the southwest of England) that wasn’t under English control either.

That is Cornwall, bordering Devon to the east, and it is one of the six Celtic Nations (the others being the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany [in France, below Cornwall]).

Cornwall (Kernow, as it is referred to in Cornish), had its own language that was in the same Celtic sub-family as Welsh and Breton (the language of Brittany).

One time before almost anyone alive on this planet now was even born, the last native Cornish speaker died, although in more modern times, the language was revived from texts (some have drawn a comparison to Modern Hebrew, which has had a lot of mythology surrounding it already).

And now the question comes, “how many people speak it?”

Perfectly, as in native? A few hundred, although there are many thousands more with a proficient command of a language, hell-bent on being warriors for the Cornish Language, like so many other movements for endangered languages.

I am reminded of this point of a Welsh proverb that says that a nation without a language is like a language without a soul, exactly the sort of mentality required for a linguistic revival of any sort.

So, here it comes. Cornish is my next language project, likely to replace Estonian on my list.

And here is another thing: there is a very specific reason that I am undertaking this Cornish Language project, and I cannot reveal it to you yet. But rest assured that it will be quite exciting indeed, if it materializes!

I’ll write more on the specifics of the Cornish Language in another post.

In the meanwhile, here is how some of my other projects are going:

  • I have mastered Greenlandic grammar. Two gargantuan tasks stand from fluency: (1) a mastery of every single suffix (the only comprehensive lists that exist are in Danish, and are resting in my DropBox account) and (2) a mastery of all essential vocabulary.

 

  • I’m still tied up with Icelandic and Faroese grammar and I’m self-conscious about both. Lord Forbid I actually have to look at tables and recite things out loud! Suffice it to say that I have a “carrot” for learning Icelandic that I will have to reveal at a later date, so I’ll use that as ample motivation…vocabulary with both is close enough to the other Germanic Languages that I’m not too intimidated by it.

 

  • On the other hand, Finnish and Northern Sami…well, if I don’t regularly maintain these then I’m going to forget both of them. There is a very real danger of this happening if I am poorly disciplined.

 

  • Portuguese has gotten a lot worse, Spanish a lot better, and Dutch a LOT I put it all up to living in New York City.

 

  • Swedish is in danger of slipping.

 

  • I really should be writing a paper that involves reading texts in German Gothic script. The good thing? That I’m almost done with it…

 

  • At least I don’t have to worry about my Hebrew exam anymore. Reflections on that course later, now that it is complete.

 

In the meantime, take the time to close the computer and get excited about something!

Fun Facts about Faroese

Well, the first thing that I have to get out of the way is this:

In the U.S., there are not many people can relate to mentioning a place or a language and then being asked, “where is that?” or “where do they speak that?”

As far as the United States are concerned, I have come across a grand total of ZERO people outside of the Polyglot Bar who had any clue that the Faroe Islands existed. Who can blame them? Most people in Europe probably are aware of their existence because of Football (Soccer? Should I use the word Soccer?)

So, let’s get this straight:

Faroese is related to Old Norse and Icelandic. It is an endangered language and the language used by about 90% of the population of the Faroe Islands and various expatriates of said islands.

These islands are somewhere between the North of Scotland and Iceland.

Faroese’s pronunciation scheme, like that of Danish, is riddled with a reputation for being impenetrable for foreigners. Like in the case of Danish, this can be alleviated by the fact that there are many similarities to English and German.

How many people speak it? Apparently the Faroese are scattered so wildly throughout the globe (although in very small numbers comparatively) that there is no way to know for certain. No fewer than 50,000, however.

Here is the flag, and the coat of arms is apparently a sheep (not shown).

foroyar

The name “Føroyar” (what the Faroese call their country) translates to “Sheep islands”, although this was in an earlier version of the language. In Greenlandic this idea is roughly translated literally, (Savalimmiut – “places where the sheep sources are”)

National Geographic named them as the world’s most desirable island destination, a designation that many Faroese were not expecting.

In no small part could this be due to the fact that the islands, unlike many other candidates in the contest, have their own language. And very recently, this language has joined my list in a low spot on my resume!

It took me a while to grapple with the grammar but a quick look at Icelandic conjugation made me feel better about what I was dealing with (Faroese seems to be tamer in its grammar). Again, it was an issue of exposure until I began to notice patterns. The tables certainly helped, but I really wasn’t someone for rote memorization when I could use fun methods like song lyrics instead.

Without further ado, I promised you alliterative “Fun Facts about Faroese”, so here they are!

  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…now imagine something like Thursevening, Frinight, and Saturmorning. This system works in Faroese. (these would be: hóskvøld, fríggjanát, and leygarmorgun)

 

  • The word for “unemployed” is “arbeiðsleysur”, literally, “available for work”. The equivalent appears in Norwegian and Danish today, but think about what it indicates: the implication is that, in a Viking Society, everybody works. If you don’t have work, you are available for it, not just merely being “without” it.

 

  • There is an issue of language purity at hand in the Faroese Language, but it seems to be nowhere as strong as it would be in Iceland or in some of the Native American Languages. Language purity always has, in my opinion, amusing results. One such result in Faroese is that the word for an auto mechanic literally means “car smith” (bilsmiður).

 

  • The Hebrides are referred to literally as the Southern Islands (suðuroggjar). The implication is that the Southern Islands from Frozen are actually a real place!

 

  • Faroese is very similar to English on many, many fronts. Even if you flip through the first few pages of a textbook (keep in mind, there certainly are not many Faroese textbooks to be found), then you may recognize “ha?”, a question tag at the end of sentences that works in a similar way as far as colloquial English is concerned.

 

The example from the textbook: “An Introduction to Modern Faroese”

 

“Tygum eru ikki Føroyingur, ha?”

 

Did you think of this…

 

“You’re not Faroese, huh?”

 

Direct word-for-word translations can work between Faroese and English, testament to Viking invasions from long ago.

 

  • Faroese has more linguistic differences among its speakers than Icelandic does. The “ei” sound is pronounced differently depending on where in the islands you are from, and even the days of the week can differ depending on how south you are (!)

 

  • The word for “religious” literally translates to “churchly” (Kirkjuligur). There are words for other religions (“Jødi” would turn out to be useful for me in particular), but the implication is that only one religious has a hold on the Faroe Islands, and it isn’t Judaism.

 

 

  • The Language’s pronunciation, especially “r” in consonant blends, goes a long way towards explaining some peculiarities about pronunciation in the other Scandinavian Languages. “Bort” in Swedish isn’t pronounced the way it would be in English, but it would be pronounced very similarly in Faroese (in which the word is “burtur”)

 

  • And now you’re probably wondering what on earth Faroese is good for…why bother?

 

Well, for one, it truly honed my ability to understand the Scandinavian Languages and English by means of a language that retains many old features. The odd pronunciation had post-cedents in each of the Scandinavian Languages that were, for me, very readily noticeable.

 

And, of course, the music comes in many different flavors. For now, something a bit more traditionalistic, a tear-jerker song:

 

My First Adventure at New York City’s Polyglot Bar

My image of the Polyglot Bar NYC that I conjured via the articles written about it was a place that had every major language in the whole world represented among its attendees.

As it turns out, I was fairly surprised to find out that there were about thirty people present, and half of them spoke Yiddish (myself included). There were more Yiddish speakers than speakers of Italian or Portuguese present, actually!

Wonderful. A bit odd. Cute. I really liked it. Will do it again in two weeks.

Some of my reflections:

  1. As a general rule, Americans never gave me the “why did you learn this?” spiel.

 

My name tag listed the languages that I knew and Northern Sami was among them (which I was definitely willing to practice, even though I consider myself quite weak). I was heartily congratulated by someone for having taken on that task. Apparently the only reactions I had from having the very rare languages listed were amazement.

 

There were those that asked me why I had the desire to learn Finnish or Dutch however. I could easily mention my Masters’ Thesis as my motivation to learn Finnish, but for Dutch I was left completely out in the cold. I went to the Netherlands as a tourist, yes, but so do many other people. And I think I’m the only person I know personally who went to the Netherlands as a tourist and learned the local language to an okay degree beforehand (my discipline wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is now…)

 

While in Heidelberg I got the “why did you choose this language?” question quite often…about pretty much anything that wasn’t too commonly studied. While in Europe, I got this from quite a few people:

 

“How did you decide upon that? Did you just wake up one morning and then decide, ‘y’know what? I’m gonna learn Greenlandic!’”

 

Yes, part of me thinks it is cute, but I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to put up with it here. Or, at least, not as much.

 

  1. I was the only speaker of any Scandinavian Language present

 

During my first semester in Heidelberg in which I was Sprachcafe-ing, this was also the case, but in the second year in Heidelberg this almost never happened. Swedish-speaking Germans from the University courses would show up, sometimes the occasional Dane or Norwegian as well (as well as native Swedish speakers, of course).

 

Interestingly I was not the only speaker of a Finno-Ugric Language present. As for Inuit languages, I usually expect to be the only one in the room that has any knowledge of them. Part of me likes it that way, but another part of me would be thrilled if and when it weren’t the case.

 

  1. People really were interested in trying out phrases in other languages

 

An Italian Speaker wanted to know how to say some basic things in Danish. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish similarly got sampled by some of the people I spoke with. (Why is it always the Nordic Languages that have this appeal?)

 

Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect to say “God Morgen!” (Danish, not Norwegian) correctly on your first try. But come to think of it, I would pay good money to hear Danish spoken in an Italian accent…or maybe I should just watch Disney films dubbed into Danish? (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind…)

 

  1. The most enthusiastic small crowd I’ve seen all year!

I almost wrote “the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen all year”, but then it occurred to me that I was in Germany in July 2014 when they won the FIFA World Cup…so much for that title…

  1. Duolingo really worked wonders for me

 

I actually got laughed at when I told someone that I learned Portuguese from Duolingo (translated from the conversation, to my vague recollection: “That must have taken you an awfully long time, week after week of practicing…”). I was so comfortable with some conversations, one in particular in which I didn’t flinch at all, that I realized that I needed to, in accordance with some advice I had received, get into native learning materials.

 

Therefore, as of this morning, I have quit the Duolingo Portuguese course (because it was a bit of a hassle for me to complete the tree) and will train the language solely with television and conversations from now on. The training wheels are gone!

 

Therefore, two things: (1) My Portuguese is now at a conversational level and (2) I replaced the Portuguese with the New Irish course!

 

Brief aside about Irish: my professor (Viktor Golinets from Heidelberg) told me that Irish had the same sentence structure as Biblical Hebrew. He’s totally right!

 

  1. I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about German as I did most of the time when I lived in the country. The confidence difference really showed.

 

If only I trained myself to not be so scared as early as April 2013. But old habits die hard. This lack-of-confidence thing is hopefully dead for good. If it wasn’t before, it certainly is after last night.

 

  1. Sometimes I feel self-conscious with native speakers, but no self-consciousness at all with people whom I did not sense to be native speakers.

 

This will just required a pinch of mental discipline on my behalf.

 

  1. Near the very end, I began mixing up languages because I was a bit tired and overheated. But I’ve noticed something: only within the same families.

 

German and Yiddish were the biggest offenders, but interestingly I never mixed up the West Germanic (German, Yiddish, Dutch) with the North Germanic (Scandinavian).

 

Obviously part of this has to do with the fact that I am a hopeless romantic for languages (and lots of other things, too) and sometimes I just need a bit of focus.

 

But I obviously know what the cure is…

 

Going to the Polyglot Bar a SECOND TIME!

The Case for Many Languages

Image

 

Antwerp Stadhuis, August 2013. Photo: Jared Gimbel

It is often Europeans that wonder why I would focus a lot of my efforts on many languages than all of my efforts on just a few. It is also often Europeans that wonder why I would even bother with a language with few speakers.

With people from the rest of the world, especially the United States, I don’t receive such reactions and encounter a lot less condescension. That isn’t to say that I haven’t received support for my efforts from my European peers—far from it.

But now I’m going to make the case as to why I studied many languages to small degrees (as well as getting very good at a handful of them) rather than just focusing all of my efforts on a few useful ones.

In my view, there are two goals to learning any language: (1) usage (conversations, bureaucracy, ordering food, and the like) and (2) the revelation of an entire new world.

Interestingly there are many people who just think that the first reason has any validity at all, and I’ve encountered this everywhere.

My last post was on the Greenlandic Language. I may have not had any conversations in it as of yet (although I have spoken it to people who did not understand it—namely, those who ask “How do you say XYZ in Greenlandic?”). However, the fact is that I have experienced music, TV shows, and other media that I just simply couldn’t have if I not learned the language at all. The Danish and the English translations just don’t cut it, if they even exist at all.

I only get one life, as do the rest of us.

There is only so much time I can spend in this world and I don’t want to give all of my effort to understanding just a small portion of the human experience. (It is true that I focus a lot of my cultural work on Europe, but this is because of the nature of my project and my work at the time being.)

When I talk about other countries and cultures that most people don’t know anything about, I usually think, “this entire world could be yours with even just minimal effort…even if just a part of it will suffice, it will change your life”

I’ve encountered many people who expressed a desire to learn one language or another. To have the desire is common. Acting on the desire isn’t. And if you have the desire, act on it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the time. Any small effort can be rewarded. You should be proud of your efforts, even small ones—and others will, too!

High-caliber polyglottery is effectively a juggling act. There are languages that I have forgotten because I can only juggle so much at a given time.

The Finnish Language was useful for what I have been doing for the past year and a half, but in my next MA Degree Project I can’t imagine that it would be as necessary for me as other languages. But in the event that I forget that language (or any other) and need it again, my latent knowledge is still there, waiting for it to be reactivated with noteworthy effort.

But even if you forget a language, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have some cultural context—and a good head start in the event that you want to take it up again.

I learned French as a child, and now I have forgotten almost everything, and Russian and Italian have gone similar ways in my life. I don’t see them as having been lost forever—I see them as waiting for me to come and pick them up.

But now I have to carpool other languages as my clients. One day I may drop a number of them off, but I can pick them up if I need them. I may have not learned all of them perfectly, but nothing is stopping me from bringing them up to a professional level if I need to—except for maybe procrastination.

Back on topic:

Languages are not just about usage.

They are about empathy with a culture.

They are about understanding how a culture relates to others.

They are about changing the way you see the world outside your own linguistic spheres.

If you look at the most essential words in any given language, they will, more often than not, not align with the most important ones in any other. One of the first words I learned in both Northern Sami and in Greenlandic was the word for reindeer. Obviously this word isn’t going to be as important in Israel.

While learning German, my first experiences were with urban vocabulary. With Swedish, it was with nature-oriented vocabulary. With Yiddish, words relating to religion are of primary importance. With Greenlandic? Not a chance.

(It occurs to me that I may be one of the only people on the planet that has a command of both Yiddish and Greenlandic. If there are any others, please let me know.)

KNR’s modestly successful TV show for kids, “Pisuttuarpunga” carries a completely different essence from America’s “Sesame Street”. Even if you compare the various international localizations of Sesame Street to one another (e.g. Israel’s “Rekhov Sumsum” or Norway’s “Sesam Stasjon”), it is obvious that there are differences and that the language makes the differences between the cultures even clearer.

In the professional world, there is one imperative: be useful.

Knowing a rare language to any degree will make you a commodity, whether you like it or not.

Learning many languages to okay degrees has enabled me to have an “I-Thou” relationship with many other cultures. My peers who study a handful of commonly studied languages to full professional proficiency tend to not have this—or they don’t have it the way I do. That isn’t to say that you should avoid that path—but be aware that being different will always give you the edge. Always.

Thanks to my excessive language juggling, I find myself very empathetic to other cultures and attuned to the human experience as a whole.

If that isn’t useful, I don’t know what is.