Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Halley Suitt writes about learning languages and points at the complacency often found in English-speaking countries when it comes to learning other languages.

I enthusiastically – riiight, make that 'strongly' – agree with her points on the importance of learning languages and really liked the point that learning another language makes you think differently, when trying to think in the way that language works. I guess that even works when witnessing another language without really learning it. While I was in Norway last week, I saw many Norwegian expressions that were meaningful to me, because the words are similar to German or English. However they were often ordered in a way that I'd consider unusual. This gives a hint of how you have to think to get the Norwegian right – even without me knowing anything about it. Of course the effect will be stronger when actually learning a language.

And this probably goes further as – to me – this way of adjusting your way to actually think in the other language or at least feel comfortable thinking within the structure of the other language seems like it may just be the key difference between people who know their grammar and vocabulary and people listening to whom just 'feels right'.

To add in the stereotypes, we could call the former group of people 'science students' – smart people who are good at knowing their grammar and words and who play by the rules to form sentences. In turn the latter group would be 'arts students' whose sentences just seem to flow more naturally even if they get the odd bit of grammar wrong occasionally. There seems to be a difference between 'following the rules of a language' and 'thinking in the rules of a language'.

And while the former may be the key to a very conscious use of language, it certainly isn't the key to speaking a language properly – as anyone who has been asked about some bit of grammar in his own mother tongue by a foreigner – and failed to answer – will immediately agree on.

What I find quite amusing, though, is that Halley is running her good argument with the example of Dutch. While I also found – strictly adhering to the stereotype – the people in Holland to be more open minded than in other places, they certainly do have a much greater incentive to learn other languages: Firstly, looking around the world, speaking Dutch only isn't too helpful and, secondly, other languages are readily present. English films or TV series aren't dubbed, so you'll hear the English – even colloquial English – on telly a lot with subtitles in Dutch.

I guess that to convince people of the advantages of learning other languages it's more fruitful to tell them about the advantages they'll have that way: Do business in Mandarin (880 million native speakers) or Spanish (350 million native speakers)? Be able to understand what is said in the Al-Jazeera reports they pipe through the news these days without needing to rely on the translator provided by Fox news or CNN? [Although I have the creepy feeling that many of the people who don't mind biased news coincide with those who don't see the point of learning languages.]

Having this example of Arabic (200 million native speakers, btw, although there seem to be many different dialects) emphasises the point that when learning a language you'll learn more than just the words and grammar but also about a different culture etc.

Did I make a point here? Looks like I wanted to write about too many things at once.

P.S. Good reading on global topics is the Atlas der Globalisiserung by Le Monde diplomatique (also available in French). Its page on languages lists Ethnologue as a good reference for the numbers.

March 30, 2003, 0:33

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