February 24, 2009

Which Language Should I Learn?

A guest post by Michael J. O'Neal, author of Crazy Bett, a historical novel published as an e-book by Smashwords.

Here's a column I wrote for the local newspaper that's applicable to Speaking in Tongues:

Before I proceed, let me establish my bona fides. I’m a language guy, with college majors in English and linguistics. I took a doctoral exam in French. I studied German in Austria. I’d love to be fluent in a foreign tongue. I’ve always regarded the ability to speak a foreign language as a mark of an educated person. I remain, though, an ignoramus, since over the years my French has gone the way of trigonometry, my German the way of complete bladder control.

So OK, I’ll learn Spanish, as President Obama recently recommended, but if you’re like me, over the hill without ever having reached the top, that’s a tall order. Despite what the folks at Rosetta Stone say, learning a foreign language for most of us is a demoralizing task. You can’t really learn a language until you need it, like when you need to pee and have to ask where the bathroom is. The problem with “learning a language” is that to get beyond asking where the bibliothèque or baño is, you can’t be bilingual unless you’re bicultural. The peoples of Europe are all somewhat bicultural because their foreign-language-speaking neighbors all live in each other's back pockets. But if I launched an effort to learn another language, on whom would I practice it? What community of speakers could I join that would make learning the language meaningful rather than just an ephemeral exercise in brute memorization?

And another question: Why Spanish? Clearly, a good many Spanish-speaking immigrants live in our country, but so do a good many Asians and Africans. The larger point that Obama was making is that he is embarrassed that furriners can all speak English, but we can’t speak their languages. Of course we can’t. Take Finland. Like Minnesota, Finland has a population of about 5 million. They all speak English (the Finns, not Minnesotans). A Finn bristles with offense if you suggest he doesn’t. What would be my motivation for learning Finnish?

There isn’t any. Throughout history, cultures have communicated with one another through what’s called a lingua franca—a common tongue that’s not native to either culture, like Latin. In modern life, English has become the world’s lingua franca. It’s an official language not only of the usual suspects—New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Nebraska, etc.—but also of (I’m going to overwhelm you with facts here to demonstrate erudition, and to annoy the copyeditor) Botswana, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. And of the United Nations. The literary language of the African Tonga is English.

English is spoken by a wide and weird assortment of peoples: Christmas Islanders, the people of the Kiribati islands, the Nyamwezi tribe of Africa, the Circassians of Israel, the Southern Sudanese, as well as in Bahrain, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Somalia. In the worldwide Science Citation Index, 95 percent of the indexed articles are in English.

Still, though, I want to learn a language. So which one? There are 5,000-plus to choose from (7,000 by some counts). China’s star is rising, so maybe Chinese. Except that “Chinese” comprises 13 languages that are by and large mutually unintelligible. India is a developing nation (if you consider call centers a sign of development), so maybe an Indian language. But which one? Among India’s 415 languages, 29 are spoken by a million or more people, 122 are spoken by 10,000 or more. Odds are that two guys from India can’t communicate in their native vernacular, so they communicate in English. Maybe Arabic? Fair enough. But “Arabic” includes 27 sub-languages, most of them mutually unintelligible. Maybe because of Iran I should learn Persian. Which Persian? Lari, spoken in Iran? Hazaragi, spoken in Afghanistan? Darwazi, spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan? Dehwari, spoken in Pakistan?

I give up. But the next time I’m on Qo’noS, the Klingon planet, and I have to pee really bad, no problem. I’ll just ask, “NuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’?”

See, I am an educated guy. (And the copyeditor is really annoyed.)


Michael J. O'Neal
Author of Crazy Bett, a historical novel published as an e-book by Smashwords
See my Smashwords profile at http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/mjoneal
Sample or purchase Crazy Bett at
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/609
Print version coming soon.

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