Saturday, February 21, 2009

Speaking French like a Spanish cow: a long and boring post on languages and dilettantism

There just isn't time to do everything. I should've learned that by now, but I haven't. I continue to act like I'm in middle school, filling my weeks with a full schedule of language classes and soccer and basketball games. It may just be, as people always say about career students, that I was most comfortable in the regimented, graduated staircase of school; the world of work and careers leaves me feeling at sea. What is the point? Where am I going?

You can get better at your job, but even when you're improving or learning something it still feels like work, and therefore, in some fundamental way, joyless. I think it's something about the psychological associations with work: just the fact that a certain task is "work" makes it sort of unbearable, mentally: everything in the world seems more fascinating than any obligatory tasks at hand. There is no time that I am more deeply interested in, say, the history of Uzbekistan than when I have a pressing deadline at work.

I'm not sure what this all has to do with my compulsive need to try to learn new languages. At the present time, I think it's fair to say that I'm trying to learn or improve my ability in the following languages: Vietnamese, Japanese, Spanish, French, and Italian, and sometimes Bengali.

I've been taking a Vietnamese class once a week for the past two years, and I'm now at the point where I can have small, rudimentary conversations with Mrs. Octopus's parents, maybe comment on the weather, food, etc. The six tones now seem to come a little more naturally, though I often wonder what my horrendous accent must sound like to native speakers. As English speakers, we have a sense of what French-accented English sounds like, Chinese-accented English, etc. I'm really curious to know what American English-accented Vietnamese sounds like. (I can only imagine that it's horrific and painful for native Vietnamese speakers to endure.) Vietnamese seems like the most sensible language for me to study right now, as Mrs. Octopus is able to help me with it (although my scintillating discussions of the weather and how tasty dinner is get boring for her after a while), and I can practice every couple days on the phone or in person with her parents. I did have a chance to speak a bit during our recent trip to Vietnam, but Mrs. Octopus, who seems to be nearly fluent in Vietnamese, was doing most of the talking, and I was doing a lot of listening. Every now and then I would say something in Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese people we were talking to would find it hilarious -- I was like a walking party trick. Then they would turn to Mrs. Octopus and say something to the effect of "You've done a good job training your husband."

I'm still taking Japanese classes on Saturdays here in Pasadena; the classes are my only opportunity to speak Japanese to anyone (I don't know anyone else with whom I can speak Japanese.) My Japanese ability is probably better than my ability in any other language -- including Bengali -- but it's just not clear to me what use I have for the language. Japanese is basically useful in Japan, and maybe some places in Sao Paolo, San Francisco, L.A., New York, and if you run into Japanese people travelling. Otherwise, it's not really a language that reaches to all parts of the world, like English, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. Still, I've probably invested too much time studying Japanese on and off since 1996 (it's a shame that my Japanese is not better than it is given that amount of time) to drop it at this point.

Spanish is the language I've been trying to learn for the longest time: the public schools in Glastonbury were pretty good about their language programs, and had us start with Spanish in second grade. I took it straight through my senior year of high school. When I was in elementary school, I loved Spanish as much as I loved anything to do with reading and writing in English. It seemed like just another way to say funny things to try to make people laugh. But in middle school and high school, Spanish got more regimented, more disciplined, more structured, and began to seem much less fun. I've tried to keep my Spanish up on my own, with old textbooks and teach-yourself CDs and books from the library. I go through periods where I read Spanish-language newspapers every day and try to listen to only Spanish language radio. And I went through intense bursts of Spanish review before various trips to Latin America or Spain. But I always get distracted, usually by a new language that seems sexier or more exciting (more about this final point later).

I never really wanted to learn French -- I was more interested in learning Italian or Portuguese -- but I have the good luck of having a friend here in L.A. whom I can pester for help with learning French. (One of my new guidelines for picking up a language is that I shouldn't be trying to pick up a language that I have no opportunity to speak with anyone (i.e., Japanese).) I really enjoy trying to pronounce French, and the manner in which consonants are elided at the ends of words, the vowel endings of so many of the verbs and nouns. But my pronunciation is atrocious and infected with Spanish; my French friend tells me there's a French expression appropriate for my pronunciation: "You speak French like a Spanish cow." Still, French seems like a useful global language, with its reach into the Middle East, Africa, through Europe, etc.

Where French is incredibly difficult to pronounce, Italian seems to come easily -- but perhaps that's because my idea of proper pronunciation is to speak like Mario or Luigi from Mario Brothers. Italian seems relatively easy to pick up if you have a good foundation in Spanish. Like Japanese, Italian doesn't seem like a very useful language outside of Italy and maybe certain U.S. cities. But it is a language that pops up all the time in food and music, and it also seems like a good way to back into learning Latin, as Italian is probably the most conservative of the Romance languages in preserving its links to Mother Latin.

I haven't been studying Bengali much lately. Before we went to Bangladesh and India this summer, I spent a lot of time trying to brush up my Bengali speaking and reading. There was a time, after I took a Bengali class during law school, where my Bengali reading ability was actually decent, but I haven't kept it up enough. My parents and family still speak to me in Bengali, and my comprehension is good, but I'm just not in enough practice to be able to produce Bengali fluently. On a sheer numerical basis, Bengali is a useful language, since it has about 230 million speakers worldwide (it's the second-most widely spoken language in India).

I'm sorry for all the tedious details. The main purpose of this post was meant to be an attempt to figure out why I am so eager to learn new languages when I have yet to master (or become anything near fluent in) any of them. This is an issue I have with books as well. There is nothing I like more than starting a book -- the introduction, the first few pages, seem to open up huge vistas of possibility and promise, and bring the excitement of knowing that I am finally actually reading some book I've always meant to read, looked forward to, etc. In the same way, there is nothing I love more than beginning to learn the basics of a language -- basic greetings, discussing the weather, asking directions, counting to ten, etc. I also really like learning to read new writing systems, especially the more distant they are from the Roman alphabet. I really enjoyed learning the Bengali and Japanese scripts and characters. A few months ago (and during a recent stop-over in Korea) I spent a few hours learning how to read Hangul, the Korean writing system -- not that I know any Korean (but (shocker) I'd like to learn). But just as my interest in a new book often wanes a bit after I've gotten past the first thirty or forty pages, my interest in a new language often begins to fade as I get into the difficult and painful details of conjugation, articles, proper forms of adjectives, etc. At that point, it's no longer fun and novel, but hard work. Ultimately, my dilettantism is self indulgence, laced with laziness.

I remember having a discussion with a friend about my inability to simply focus on one language and master it; my friend (who speaks French very well) suggested that it probably made sense to master one foreign language, rather than learning bits and scraps of several. She's probably right, though I don't know what I would do with "mastery" of any particular language. Perhaps it would be a good thing, but I do also enjoy having some elementary feel of various languages, and getting that dizzying sense of the possibilities out there, the multiple ways of describing the world. I guess it makes sense that the word "dilettante" is derived from the Italian delittare (to delight), which in turn is from the Latin dilectare. My dabbling in languages is not about mastery, really-- it's about delight, a somewhat intense form of sampling.

But this year is about finishing things for me. I have my ridiculous reading list that I put together, and I intend to get through that. (Updates coming soon.) I'm trying to focus and get away from my impractical and foolish attempt to learn five languages at once. My main language goal for the year is to get my Spanish to a very good level, to the point that I am comfortable having conversations that are maybe beyond a fourth-grade level. I have to come to grips with the fact that here just isn't time to do everything. You have to make choices, and leave somethings behind, or for later. But there's nothing wrong with getting a taste of as many things as you can.


Jose said...

actually, i think your friend's advice is wrong. you should master another language if your survival depends on it – professionally, politically, and so on. otherwise, the "why" is likely to be about acquiring the implicit knowledge and worldview of another culture. it's up to you to decide just how much of that knowledge and perspective you want to / care to observe. the analogy to a novel is not entirely imprecise. you are peeking into a worldview. that's a remarkable accomplishment and will make you a far better student of humanity than those who only study events – rather than the words that compel people to act in the first place.

Brian Barker said...

I see that President Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese and Arabic out of the equation.

Why not teach a common neutral non-national language, in all countries, in all schools, worldwide?

An interesting video can be seen at

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Eleanor said...

I completely agree that there is nothing wrong with having a little bit of everything, keep the updates coming. Post made me giggle, Eleanor

Amin said...

Part about being trained well by Mrs. Octopus made me laugh out loud. Not like lol; I mean really loud!