Language, Language!

Ever since I was a kid in grade school, playing with simple codes, I’ve been fascinated by other languages, and the myriad ways that meaning can be wrapped in shells of sound and symbol. In high school I studied German, and in college, Russian. Along the way I also studied a little Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew, and in a month or so I learned more Esperanto than I did of German in two years (Esperanto is easy!). Since I grew up on the Mexican border, a bit of border Spanish seeped through the cracks as well.

Recently, my study of languages like PHP made me realize how much I’ve lost of my human languages, a common problem for many Americans who seldom use them. I decided to take some steps to reverse the trend. I’m pretty much willing to write off my Russian and Biblical languages, but I want to improve my German. And more than that, I want to get to the point where I’m truly decent in Spanish, Esperanto, and Catalan (the language of Barcelona and northwestern Spain — a new one for me).

I plan to cycle through periods of a few months each concentrating on Spanish and Catalan, with short periods in between to improve my Esperanto. (This weekend I practically brought my level of Esperanto back to where it was twenty years ago.) German, I’ll tend to later.

Learning languages now is a hell of a lot more fun than it was when I was in school:

  • Podcasts
  • International TV broadcasts and newspapers on the Web
  • Blogs
  • Web courses
  • Easily-ordered foreign-language books (I’m reading El Alquimista en español)
  • Movies, videos, and DVDs (I’ve already rented several Mexican and Spanish films from the Naro)
  • Wikipedias. (Did you know the German Wikipedia is the second largest, with nearly 500,000 articles? Or that the Spanish wiki has nearly 170,000, that Catalan has 46,000? Or that oft-denigrated Esperanto is resurgent with 61,000 Wikipedia articles and now a full-time TV station?)
  • Music (Check out this achingly beautiful song by Jorge Drexler, courtesy of Luis Coelho’s link.)
  • E-mail, forums, chat… it just goes on.

Why bother? Well, yeah, I want to visit Spain, especially Barcelona, but it’s more than that. The Internet makes it possible for the first time for any willing, literate person to truly transcend the limitations of living within a single culture, and become a citizen of the world. I’ve always felt I was, but I want to realize that more concretely.

I think studying the words of another culture brings home how arbitrary the words really are, and primes us for seeing what’s beyond the mere words and thoughts. At least, like everything else, it can if we let it…

Paz y amor, pau i amor, paco kaj amo, Friede und Liebe! —jon

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2 thoughts on “Language, Language!

  1. Cool post, Jon. It’s becoming increasingly important for us to learn to speak each others’ languages as we move into a global age and an ever expanding communications network!

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