Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Language Learning

I've always been fascinated by languages.

I can remember thinking about the Biblical Tower of Babel, and wondering what the first language was. So over the years, when I came across a newspaper article about linguistics, languages, or the human brain, I've usually read them.

The space station program became international very soon after it was begun, as the European Space Agency  and the Japanese were invited to participate with their own modules. So, for me, studying languages became closely tied to my fascination with spaceflight and my awareness of globalization.

The Base library proved an excellent resource for that fascination, as I could check out books attempting to teach myself a dozen different languages at once. Of course I bit off more than I could chew, I would have done better to focus on one at a time. The one I went farthest in, was reading and writing Finnish, as I found a good resource. But I've forgotten most of it since then.

When I finally had the opportunity to learn a language (Spanish) in school, I took it. One Valentine's Day, the teacher handed us a worksheet and asked us to match the translation of "I love you" to the appropriate language.

While my language reading hadn't taught me the language, per se, I had a pretty good feel for "this looks like the Chinese symbols," and "this looks like German", so that I had the most accurate answers.

Why does all of this matter?

Language is another key component to culture, that American culture likes to... overlook? ignore? criticize? A Host of Tongues describes how people in the United States inherited the British tendency to just speak louder when confronted with someone who doesn't speak English. It's a fascinating book, if you're interested in the history of languages and attitudes toward language in this country.

I knew from an early age that I did not want to be one of those "ugly Americans" who travel overseas and then wonder why the locals don't speak English.

I know from Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World and my own experiences, that because my primary responsibility is to the technical design, I will most likely need a professional translator for business. As much as I enjoy language learning, what I have had time to learn has tended to be needs-focused.

There are several apps that break vocabulary down, and travelers phrasebooks. Any one can learn a few phrases, if not well before the trip, then at least on the airplane. If you only have time for 20 words or phrases, learn:


  1. Hello
  2. Goodbye
  3. Please
  4. Thank you
  5. Where is the bathroom?
  6. Excuse me
  7. Help (me)
  8. Do you speak English?
  9. My name is ____
  10. I don't speak _____
  11. the numbers, 1-10
One of the things I like about Duolingo is that it has focused on these functional matters, which is also what the Fluent in 3 Months blog recommends.

As I said above, if one is doing deep technical or legal contract work, one should use a professional translator.  Time, practice, and necessity has taught me much of the technical Russian that applied to the system I was responsible for. This was good, because sometimes the professional translators might have learned a different technical vocabulary. Vocabulary can be easy, especially when you hear the words repeated regularly. Grammar... grammar can be more difficult.

I want to add some cautions to Benny's (Fluent in 3 Months) advice, from the feminist perspective. Yes, the best way to learn a language is to use it. But that doesn't mean that native speakers are obligated to speak with you. In fact, asking somebody to speak in their native language can be a microinequity.

Asking anyone to speak a language that one isn't conversing in, can be a microinequity. 
  • "Wait, you speak Russian?  Say something in Russian." 
  • "чtо" 
  • <giggles> "What does that mean?" 
  • "That."