Reasons: Languages

I’ve mentioned taking on a lot of languages at once before, in a previous post with a very similar title, but the thought occurred to me today to elaborate on that a little.

It’s a reasonable desire, but not at all a laudable goal, to want to learn every major language in the world out of a desire for greater understanding (and maybe to stave off dementia in later life). People are often wowed by the fact I’m usually studying 2-4 languages at any given time, depending on upcoming holidays and shifting interests/goals.

The list currently stands as:

  • Japanese (Intermediate level at SOAS)
    • Main difficulties: very tough grammatical system which inverts many of the rules for English. Few people speak Japanese which makes it hard to ‘come across’, the textbooks are too structured and there’s not enough focus on speaking/listening.
  • Mandarin (Elementary level through work/the FCO)
    • I’m likely to stop this after this term for ‘reasons’ I can’t yet share, but main difficulties: thousands and thousands of hanzi (kanji/characters), tones (though I don’t find these too hard, others struggle more) and our teacher goes off on total tangents and is hard to follow!
  • German (going to Essen on Wednesday)
    • I did this at GCSE and will never again forget ‘ich bin ins Kino gegangen’ but difficulties are: three genders is the biggest gripe, followed by (later on) four cases (nominative, dative, accusative, genitive) just to say the word, ‘the’. I mean seriously, go do one, German.
  • Spanish (going to southern Spain in November)
    • Difficulties with Spanish are mostly in the listening – it’s a very ‘elision’ filled language.
man standing beside red chinese lanterns
Photo by Andrew Haimerl on

Then there’s the list of ‘dormant’ languages, in increasing order of neglect:

  • Italian (highest reached: upper intermediate; last used in September when in Rome. Tee hee. “When in Rome.”)
  • Portuguese (highest reached: elementary; last used in Lisbon, about 5 months ago)
  • French (highest reached: intermediate; last used in Paris, about 6 months ago)

Finally there’s the list of ‘I wanna’s, which I’ve never made a true effort in getting off the ground (though might have dabbled in for a week or so). These aren’t in any particular order:

  • Arabic (learned the language when I was in Israel because it was on all the signs, promptly forgot most of it)
  • Swedish (I have relatives and I’d quite like to be able to join in)
  • Dutch (in case I need to escape Britain)

The goal is, every time I pick one up again, I try to go further with it than I did before. I failed at this a bit with Italian; I didn’t end up speaking with anyone at anything more than a conversational level the last time I went, and one of the problems at that level is, you need to listen to the music, watch the films, read the books, and chat with the friends.

I haven’t spoken to my Italian friends in such a long time, and I have several! I read their updates on facebook (which is getting increasingly more difficult as I further lose my vocabulary). Same goes for my hispanophonic friends (isn’t that a great word). I once tried to start up a group for people learning languages – it didn’t really get off the ground. People’s priorities are different.

I have a ton of apps – thank goodness for apps. Language learning has never been so cheap (even free!) or accessible. I strongly believe that this means no one has an excuse. The age of the clueless Brit should, by rights, be over.

Do me a favour – when you go to a country, make that extra effort. You’ll feel good, and the person speaking to you will really appreciate it (even if they reply in English)! Even if all you can do is agree that the weather sucks at the bus station or order food convincingly. These casual interactions make up most of our days, and they’re underrated.

Anyway, what’re your reasons for learning a language? What’re your secrets? How do you keep it all in your head? I’d love to know.


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