Thursday, April 07, 2005

Why French? Why Russian? Why languages?

"Obsession" is technically defined as the uncontrollable persistance of an idea or feeling in the mind, usually associated with a psychiatric disorder. But I think it's fair to say that the word has been banalized to mean something like "a strong, atypical interest." This is how some people (monolinguists and multilinguists alike) seem to perceive my interest in languages, especially considering that:
1. I was not born to bilingual parents
2. my career aspirations do not even remotely include being a linguist or teaching language, and, most surprisingly
3. I'm not only a native angliphone (English being a highly desired skill nowadays), but an American, who are notoriously (and in some cases justifiably) egocentric.

This leads to a question I am asked with annoying frequency*: "Why?" Why spend all this time and energy learning languages when the rest of the world is, if not eager, at least willing to learn mine? Or more specifically, why learn French when Spanish is easier and more useful in the U.S.? Or indeed, why on Earth learn Russian at all?!? (Most frequently asked by Russians themselves.)

I'm tired of never having a very clever response to this. I either respond rather lamely that languages just interest me, or rather over-impressively that I want to be an international journalist (people always assume for the NY Times and I don't do much to dispell that).

But though those reasons are essentially true, it isn't entirely either one. How to define an interest? What makes someone interested in biology, or airplanes, or even American Idol? Why does it please someone to know something about that? Who knows but the brain surgeons, and who knows if they really know. 

I think my answer to this question lies in the fact that I'm really impressed by people who know many different languages. These people are usually not angliphones and the way they take it as given that they have to know more than their native language is inspiring. If they can do it, why can't I? Or more accurately, if they have to do it, why shouldn't I? I just think it's so amazing how they are able to lift the veil that covers interaction between two cultures. I, too, want to be on the other side of the looking glass.

I want to know the world. Traveling is great, but compared to *living* there it's like watching a lengthy Travel channel program with smells and sensations. If I want to really get to know different parts of the world then, and how the people there think, I'll have to know their language. I will never know them like I know my own people, but I will know them better. I will be able to get outside of the microscopic area of existence I have so far occupied on this planet and see the various human realities. As a relatively rich and fortunate member of the human race, why would I be content to see the same reality day after day? It would be like having the means to own a time machine or a spaceship and never getting around to using it. What exactly else is there to life if not experiences? I guess I'm just trying to have as many positive ones as possible.

As to why French, it is a major world language and useful in international affairs, and it's close to English so it's relatively easy to learn. French is also a core language in the European Union, another concept that fascinates me. But so is Spanish, people say. I suppose I just identify with the French better than with the Spanish. Besides, everyone has told me that Spanish and French are quite similar, so if I ever needed to learn Spanish it wouldn't take that long.

As to why Russian, why not? There are 80 million russophones in the world and nearly all the Eastern European languages are strongly based on Russian. I can already look at Czech and recognize words. It's a language with just as much utility as more typical choices like French and Spanish, indeed even more so for the rarity of a native angliphone that has taken the trouble to learn it.

But I suppose all of that is too lengthy to respond with to such a conversational question. I guess I'll just stick with: 
"I'm impressed by people who know (French) (Russian) (etc?) and I wanted to be one of them."

But you all will know the real reasons.


*I understand, of course, the sentiment behind this question and I too have heard myself ask it. It's a natural way to start a conversation, but it's a non-question, like "How are you?" or asking if someone is "excited" to study abroad. What exactly are they supposed to respond? A short answer is too brief for such an important question, but a long answer would make the other person uncomfortable.

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