Sunday, May 11, 2008

year of languages

UNESCO has decided 2008 is the Year of Languages.

I called my stepmother earlier this afternoon. I had sent her an e-mail expressing regret that the English course she took when she first came to America was very bad - confidence counts for so much in learning a language, and if you start with a bad course it's easy to lose heart. She explained that she had been able to take the course because she had a scholarship; my father was not willing to pay for an English course. (My father was born in 1934; his earliest memories were of life during the Depression; he felt poor all his life.) She then explained that she now speaks Portuguese to my brother, but the language he is dying to learn is Italian. He saw the Rosetta Stone course online and wants it. Her view is that the language he should work on is Spanish, because a) it is used everywhere in Florida and b) it will help him with his Portuguese.

This all sounds terribly familiar. The last thing a child wants to learn is a language that shows some prospect of being useful. Sheer impracticality is one of the strongest points in a language's favour for the young learner. The main reason my French is so much better than my Spanish or Portuguese is, naturally, that I grew up in countries where there was no use for it. Hassan Abudu speaks of being forcefed various Ghanaian languages which the resentful brain declined to admit to long-term memory. My ex-husband David is an exceptionally gifted linguist; his parents knew a smattering of Yiddish, it was more widely spoken in the older generations; it comes as no surprise that DSL, while quite unable to bear the (to him) unspeakable tedium of Yiddish, was just waiting to be seduced to Old Norse, Arabic, Akkadian...

I can't help feeling that the project of saving languages starts from the false premise that the likeliest prospects for preservation are those with some sort of family connection to the current population of native speakers. We may need a different paradigm. We need to take in each other's washing.

7 comments:

Mithridates said...

This is great! One thing that got me terribly excited about Greek - aside from LS - was Stephen Daitz's preternatural warbling. Epopopopopopoi! Perhaps this is why in high school I took to Faulkner (especially Sound & Fury, & Absalom Absalom, which at times barely seem to make sense) and Joyce (my random-read & penciled-up copy of Finnegans Wake in my locker) - read for the sheer fun of it, there being no one to impress, and the release into something that made a different kind of sense but that I was comfortable with not understanding completely - and was so lukewarm on my language classes. Io sono Mithridates. Ho tredici anni. Mi piace libri e film. - Snore! Had I known something like the experience of reading Montale or Ungaretti or Landolfi or Calvino et al were possible then, I would have put up with all the plodding functional sentences much better and done my homework. Maybe.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

Speaking of languages- odd coincidence: I met a older Swiss hippie guy at the bar across the street last night who was basically chain-smoking hash joints, was kind of harmlessly eccentric, very very friendly, an expert bird-caller and spoke many many languages. I didn't quite believe him until he proceeded to demonstrate them as other multilingual people of various nationalities came by his table. He spoke Turkish, Russian, Spanish, French, German, English, Greek, German and Swiss-German (so almost 9 actually) - quite amazing, especially given the incessant hash smoking.

Ithaca said...

Despite, says TAR ART RAT. But maybe I would lose all my social inhibitions and start talking to people if I took up hash.

Language said...

The last thing a child wants to learn is a language that shows some prospect of being useful. Sheer impracticality is one of the strongest points in a language's favour for the young learner.

And here I thought it was just me! Once again, the internet shows its potential to relieve us from our existential nausée and connect us with like-minded souls. Down with utility! Up with joyous forthehellofitness!

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

useful phrases for swearing in welsh

Cecilieaux said...

Rather than a dislike of utility, I think it is that children dislike the power of adults over their language(s). A friend who had a Czech father and Argentine mother in the USA, stopped talking until everyone settled on one language (English). I made up countless "secret" alphabets and spoke in utter macaronic as a child. I see these as instances of defiance, marking one's territory, etc.

Anonymous said...

No Drugs--

They are bad for the health!

SMB