Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.
Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.
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:
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.
In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:
Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)
My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.
I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?
I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.
But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.
I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)
If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.
Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.
Let’s hop in:
Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.
Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).
And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!
When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.
In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.
What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).
Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?
On that topic, there’s also an issue with…
Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!
A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.
Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.
I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).
If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.
A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…
In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.
Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…
One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.
If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.
This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).
In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.
In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.
What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).
Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)
Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.
The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!
And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).
I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)
And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).
For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)
Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.
In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)
Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?
Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.
Every time I glimpse a language from the post-colonial world, I gain extraordinary insights into the damage and cruelty afflicted by the process as well as the fact that some cultures find themselves to various degrees of confusion.
Some are significantly healthy in terms of their cultural and linguistic identity, despite a lingering sense of having been hurt in the not-too-distant past (Greenland is one such example).
Others are similarly safe (more or less) but often find themselves under the boot of either economic attitudes, cultural disdain or wounds inflicted by the past (Welsh-speakers throughout the UK, both within and without of Wales, have encountered a vocal minority spreading lies that bilingual education harms children and that keeping Welsh alive is merely a waste of money and serves to exclude English speakers. I’m not even going to dignify these claims with a response.)
Others have found their languages on life support, or, in many more cases, have been killed, due to the results of colonialism. The vast majority of languages spoken on the continent in which I am now writing this have been sadly relegated to that graveyard.
Here’s about one more such language that finds itself on the brink, and it comes from a place you’ve definitely heard of.
Last week, knowing that I should start my projects now rather than later (even if I attempt to “pause” them later on down the line), I began learning a language of a place that my father visited before I was born, a place that I’ve been curious about since my childhood.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Tahiti.
Today is June 29th, which is a day in the history of French Polynesia that is fairly confused in its role. The Day (as well as the celebrations that tend to last for weeks afterwards) is the celebration of French Polynesia’s Autonomy.
Some see it as an Independence Day, others see it as a day worth mourning, given that it is a celebration of autonomy within the French Commonwealth rather than a full independence.
Regardless of how you see the day, I thought today would be a good day to write about my first impressions.
I’ve just been at it at nearly a week, so if you have any advice or comments, let me know. I feel fulfillment knowing that this dream that I’ve deferred for so long is finally becoming a reality, and that maybe other Polynesian Languages (such as Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan and Maori) may similarly follow suit.
Here are some of my reflections that I’m going to look back on one day. Who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll be a specialist in Polynesian Languages. I’d never say never… especially when I thought in 2008 that I would “never learn Finnish”!
Interestingly enough I could say the same thing about Breton…sort of…given that a lot of scholars of Celtic languages may actually be from the British Isles, I found a significant amount of material accessible for English-speakers as far as the Breton-learning market was concerned. It goes without saying that knowing French would be very advantageous indeed in that department (and I learned Breton before I deemed my French was any good, precisely so I could write about the experience).
But for Tahitian, I’m finding that, aside from some phrasebooks and the like, material for learning Tahitian in-depth seems lacking unless I go over to the French side of the Internet. And this leads into my second point…
I don’t know a lot of the details as to various quotas required for French-language usage on TV and radio even in the overseas dependencies, but French language usage dominates on the Internet in Tahiti. As to whether it does in real-life is another thing (and perhaps those of you who have been to Tahiti, as I may indeed one day, could share your experiences!)
Like with Breton, I have had trouble in finding a consistent stream of material for Tahitian immersion. Maybe I need to look a bit further.
That said, I’m finally grateful that I have an “excuse” to improve my French (and yes, learning about Vanuatu / Bislama did help to minor degrees, but there are those that believe that the government is hanging on to its Francophone status so as to keep getting French aid money. I’ll back out of this debate…)
Truth be told: I really like endangered and rare languages (SURPRISE!). I don’t have the same enthusiasm for popular languages unless they somehow serve as bridges to the rarer ones. Voila.
An interesting side note: sometimes I tell my Francophone friends that my primary interest in the Francophone world lies in the South Pacific (which was true before I began learning Tahitian, by the way). A lot of them tend to respond as something like, “Oh, yeah, Vanuatu! I remember him! Haven’t heard much about him these days. How is he?” Announcing my intentions to learn Tahitian last week at Mundo Lingo got me a similar response.
I find it very heartwarming that the French people I have met actually have a significant soft spot for these endangered languages within their commonwealth and it shows. They tend to admire those who devote time to them. I have never encountered a “why would you do that? How on earth…” or the even worse “why bother keeping it alive?” from any of them.
Like in Finnish, there are longer vowels and the long vowels can actually change the meaning of a word when substituted for a short one. In Tahitian, the line above the letter indicates that it is longer. Pronounce it with more length.
With the exception of the elongated vowels, Tahitian has a, e, i, o and u, pronounced almost exactly the way are pronounced in the Melanesian Creoles that I’ve studied and now speak fluently (Tok Pisin, Bislama and Pijin). For those who don’t have that reference point, these are similar to their pronunciations in Spanish.
There is a (an?) ” ‘ ” that is pronounced as a glottal stop. Now this is like the pause between an English “uh-oh”. Surprisingly, given that a large number of Americans are familiar with some Hawaiian, this may be familiar to you.
On a side note about Hawaiian popular culture, I think it also influenced Japan in much of the same way (and perhaps the same argument could be made for Polynesian culture as a whole!)
The word for a village in Tahitian is “nu’u”, which I instantly recognized from the name of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa (for those unaware, the Polynesian languages resemble each other much like the Romance Languages do). Quick research reveals that Nuku’alofa is Tongan for “place of love” (nuku is the cognate word. One day I’d really like to learn Tongan, but I think one Poly Language at a time will do for now as well as … dropping or pausing a lot of my previous projects…)
The word for greeting is Aroha. Thanks to American Popular Culture / Pokémon Games, I need not tell you anymore.
The way to say “hello” is “ia ora na”, which I recognized from that one week I spent with Maori back in 2014 – “Kia ora” is their greeting.
And the Tahitian word for the ocean is certainly a word you may recognize:
EDIT: WHAAAAAAT? WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!!?!?! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT???!!?!
Wow, I honestly…wasn’t expecting that…I may have some issues with big corporations in general, but sometimes I have to hand it to Disney concerning the work they do with multilingualism, even if they do mostly focus on the developed world. (And hey…thanks for the Icelandic dubs!
Another thing to keep in mind, on the topic of Disney, is that Moana is actually known as Vaiana in Europe on account of…I’ve heard copyright issues and the other story I’ve heard involves the name of an Italian…well, you can look it up yourself if you’re so curious.
Vaiana is Tahitian as well, “water cave”
Seems that I have an exciting journey ahead in regards to seeing the true side of French Polynesia and its best-known island! I can’t say I’ll head in knowing what to expect, but much like the rest of my language journeys, I’ll know I’ll be forever changed!