Knowing multiple languages is like a superpower. You can decode other people and smash through language barriers. Ideally, I would collect as many languages as possible.
Unfortunately, learning and retaining a new language is a time-consuming task. Even with all the tech tools we have at our disposal, including DuoLingo, YouTube, and Google Translate, fluency is easiest to obtain when we’re immersed in a place where the language is constantly used and contextualized. Multilingualism is our reward for traveling to unfamiliar places.
I settle for the easier lesson: learning about languages. I relish in knowing little facts, like the way each language reflects the culture it lives in, the history behind each one, and similarities between certain languages in pronunciation and grammar. For example, Mandarin speakers have an advantage in music because of Mandarin’s natural tones, and an advantage in pronouncing the tricky French vowel “u”, which doesn’t exist in English.
I geek out over diagrams of linguistic family trees that are still growing, which prove that languages live and evolve along with the human race. Studying language acquisition in psychology class taught me that listening to language sounds as a baby makes it much easier to speak certain languages later on in life. I read about the methods polyglots use to pick up new languages.
Admittedly, I still attempt to dabble in multiple languages from time to time. My motivation to learn certain languages evolve with my interests, so I learn only enough of each tongue to recognize basic patterns. I studied some Japanese to understand my coworkers. I picked up some Taiwanese so my parents can’t secretly talk about me. I took French in college so I could understand more notation on my classical sheet music. I can’t really speak those languages, but they feel like familiar friends to me.
Mostly, I rely on the power of pop culture to expose myself to different languages. I sometimes read Harry Potter in Chinese to compare the translation to the original. I especially love the effort Disney took to record the awesome Moana songs in tons of different languages, recorded by local artists.
I also recognize how expensive it is for companies like Disney to accommodate such a wide variety of languages in our global world. Translations come with costs, and bad translations cause misunderstandings. Given money constraints, we have to choose which few languages are worth the translation for each project, often excluding the rest of the world from access.
Despite the troubles that language barriers give us, I don’t propose that everyone in the world should switch to English or the artificial language Esperanto. Everyone should learn languages that are useful to them. Personally, I find beauty in listening to native speakers of languages that I can’t understand.
Of course, life would be awesome if I could get my hands on a Babel Fish. And technology platforms are inching closer to becoming reliable translation machines. But the mysteries and nuances of each language and the complexities of the communities and experiences they represent are what make linguistics so rewarding.
This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.