Language Learning is the Swiss Army Knife of Knowledge…

For when you don’t have a Galactic Hitchhiker from whom you may borrow a Babel Fish…

Han Solo understood Chewbacca’s Wookiee language and the speech of Greedo, a Rodian (Thank goodness or Han would’ve only had a bit part in A New Hope!).  Jabba the Hutt understood English (but still didn’t heed Luke’s warning!). And C-3PO, that loveable goldenrod, was fluent in over six million forms of communication!

Image Copyright Stanley Chow

John Malkovich and Johnny Depp know more than English.  Emma Thompson does, too.  Penelope Cruz has made a career in both Spanish- and English-language films.  Gérard Depardieu makes films in France and Hollywood.  Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian, and Milan Kundera, Czech, all wrote in French, their second language.  And Haruki Murakami wrote the first lines of his debut novel in English, then translated them back into his native Japanese, finding his voice along the way.

It’s what separates the Fleming Bond from the Hollywood Bond.  It’s what makes Jason Bourne way cooler than both.  What’s “it,” you say? Why, speaking more than one language. Being a polyglot.

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You know the old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three? Trilingual. One? American.

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Mandarin is spoken by over 1 billion people.

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According to CBS news, Barack Obama, at a town hall meeting in 2008, said, despite having spent part of his childhood overseas, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”  Days prior he was reported saying, “It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?”   When Mr. Obama championed the idea of Americans learning another language, his opponents jumped to criticize, deride and worse.  His response?  “You know, this is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is we should want children with more knowledge.”

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Skittles.

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G. Tucker Childs, in his 2003 An Introduction to African Languages, declares that there are more than 2100 languages spoken on the continent.

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Whenever I’ve told someone that I speak French, I’ve never been met with, “Holy Cow! Are you kidding!?  Why on earth would you want to speak another language?”  Very often there is the refrain of “Oh man, that is so cool!  I wish I spoke another language.”  Sometimes a rousing chorus of “Wow, I studied [insert language here] in high school but I don’t remember anything except [insert “hello” or “please” or random curse word from previous language].”  There is the occasional stunned silence, usually for people who aren’t sure how to respond, but they often follow up with a question about how I learned it, or where or why.  And then there are those who, despite having no background in learning another language, still try to relate:  “Wow, that’s great.  I have an uncle who had a step-daughter from his second, no third, marriage, who took French in junior high.  She really liked it.”

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Did you know that Spanish is the de jure or de facto language in some 23 countries around the world, on four continents? 

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There are a million reasons (I know because I’ve counted—#1, to communicate) to learn another language.  Gaining cultural competence and awareness, and improving one’s ability to think and reason notwithstanding, learning another language allows us to better know our mother tongue (Oh, how many students I’ve had who didn’t understand English grammar until we studied French grammar.).  It leaves us with the ability to travel far-off with the magical power to experience a more authentic Spain or France, a more personal Senegal or Columbia.  It bestows upon us even more ways to express ourselves and, better yet, know and understand ourselves.  For music fans, it is your gateway to an exponential number of new favorite bands that you won’t ever hear on the radio, so no  more listening to the same misses over and over and over.  For movie buffs, your DVD collection will grow, your bank account shrink, and Friday Film Nights will never, ever be the same.

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French is the official language (or one of several) of 30+ countries around the world, used unofficially in even more, spoken on five continents, and figures among the official languages of dozens of international organizations.

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Living in Austin, I find myself in the car quite often.  By which I really mean, all the time.  When I’m not listening to KUT, the local NPR affiliate, I have CDs constantly playing music.  You may not think this terribly unusual, save one detail.  Almost without fail, those discs are playing French music.  Or African Music.  Mostly likely hip hop.  In my mind, the soundtrack of Austin isn’t Sara Hickman, Alejandro Escovedo or Brownout (though I listen to them!), but IAM, Saïan Supa Crew, Magic System and Sexion d’Assaut.  And, full disclosure, listening to what surely seems out of place to everyone but me, I always do two things.  One: At stoplights, when the weather’s nice, I open the sunroof and the windows and turn up the music.  When people stare, I know I’m cool, and I secretly wait for them to ask me what I’m playing. Two: Every time I hear a Sonic ID on KUT, I automatically imagine it’s me on the radio, talking about how my soundtrack to Austin goes back and forth between Morning Edition, All Things Considered and French Hip Hop.  Other drivers will listen to this same Sonic ID and think, “That guy must be so cool.”  The ID ends with me singing along to something fun, like Magic System.

My therapists say my delusions completely lack grandeur.

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Learning languages is a Swiss Army Knife for knowledge.  It makes you smarter; it makes you cooler.  It opens the world to you in ways you haven’t even imagined.  It bridges cultures and continents; it links one human to another.  And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, that link turns romantic, then you woo someone in their language, and they you, in yours.  That’s probably worth the price of admission right there.

An Attempt at Internet Dating

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I’ve got Japanese and Arabic on my list. What language do you want to start learning today?

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7 thoughts on “Language Learning is the Swiss Army Knife of Knowledge…

  1. giazon says:

    Loved your post as a fellow language lover! I’m thinking of picking up some Mongolian for an upcoming trip there and want to improve my Japanese a bit more in the meantime!

    Like

    • Thanks so much for your kind words! Travel is always a great excuse to pick up some of a new language. So what made you decide to study Japanese? How fluent are you? What other languages do you speak?

      Like

      • giazon says:

        I had a neighbor as a child from Japan and started to learn then, but I love the culture and cartoons as well😉 I’m pretty good with the European languages so I’m trying to branch out a bit into Asia!

        Like

      • That’s great! I’m looking at Japanese and Arabic because of future teaching possibilities. And I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami, so if I could ever read him in the original I would be more than stoked! What other languages do you speak?

        Like

      • giazon says:

        I love Murakami too, but am only to the level of reading comics, real literature is still a ways off. I speak French, Italian, German and Spanish, plus I read Latin and Greek. Languages are a big hobby of mine!

        Like

  2. jac says:

    Great stuff-🙂

    Like

  3. Lina says:

    This is so entertaining! Great Job! You definitely captured the essence! That is exactly how I feel in my car when I’m playing some underground Cuban Hip-Hop!!!

    Like

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