Here Thar Be Monsters!
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Lingua Franka A La Mode
I've been taken to task by several readers over my repeated claim to speak 17 languages. They can't imagine anyone being able to store all that in one head, even though I pointed out that the world record for fluency is 21 languages.
So, how does one learn 17 languages? Surprisingly, it's kind of easy, after the first two or three.
As a youngster in Texas, we were required to learn both English and Spanish. I had just as many Spanish classes per week as I did in my "other" mother tongue. Though I'm quite rusty at this point, having not used Spanish at all for more than a decade, I can still read and write it quite well, and if I'm around a bunch of Spaniards, it comes back rather quickly.
The next step was having a rabidly Roman Catholic father, who not only insisted that I attend an exclusive all-boys Catholic school, but that I study Latin for two years. While at the time I would have easily compared the experience to being hog-tied by the Inquisition and tortured with glass slivers under the finger nails, I have long since seen the wisdom of it. You see, the more you learn about the English language, the more your realize that it is shot through with Latin, and it comes in quite handy knowing both.
By the time I reached university, I was tired of the Romance languages and was ready for something new. I chose German, since I have ancestry from there and because I had already lived in Bavaria for six months working at the national theater, so I had picked up a good bit of "street" German and the Bavarian dialect (called Schwabisch).
Now you're probably thinking, "Yeah, and what does this have to do with 17 languages?"
Well, the southern tier of countries in Europe all use some direct descendant of Latin, which is why they are called the Romance languages (as in Rome). Having studied Spanish and Latin, I can read French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, as well as understand speakers with some effort. If I am in those countries, I pick up the language very fast, and can even imitate the sounds quite well. In fact, I am told that my Spanish has a strong Seville accent and my German sounds Bavarian. I have also received compliments on my Italian, in that I sound Sicilian. Not sure if that is a compliment, though.
Anyway, being fluent in English and German gives me the ability to read Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and to a lesser extent, Swedish. Again, if I am in a room full of Norwegians, it takes me about an hour or so to get up to speed. For the most part, I need to hear the pronunciation, intonation and syntax so I can start speaking coherently.
On my own, I taught myself the Greek and Russian alphabets, as well as a few basic phrases - call it survival language. With Greek, I can read some text in a way that is fairly intelligible, but I have no idea (outside of a few words) what I am saying. Russian is quite a bit more complex, but I have decided one day to give it a go.
Having now become fluent in three languages and being able to get by in a dozen, it becomes much easier to learn more. Once you are expert at your own language (which most people aren't), then the rest is basically filing. Think of it as a matrix, with columns being parts of speech and rows being different languages. Thus, I file nouns in the appropriate column in the row for any given language. The part that still gets me bunged up is syntax, since there is no easy way to fit that into my nifty mental matrix. More on syntax in a moment.
At this point, most of learning a new language is memorization. You learn a new word, figure out what part of speech it is (i.e. - interrogative), then file it away. The rest is practicing using the word in context.
Over the past eight years, I've been learning (of course) Indonesian. Like European languages, this gives me access to many others. Indonesian is a form of Malay, which is descended from Hindi and Sanskrit. I have little problem understanding or speaking Malay, but I can only pick out a few things in Hindi, Sanskrit or Tagalu (Philippines). With Tagalu, though, the language is a mixture of the Malay language and Spanish, meaning I can pick out about 60% of the written language, though speaking goes too fast for me to focus on individual words.
Beyond that, many of the 300+ dialects in Indonesia use more or less the same grammar, though the vocabulary can vary widely. Having already learned the Indonesian grammar, it became rather simple to pick up Javanese and Sundanese. Just plug in vocabulary.
The hard part was the Indonesian grammar. Unlike English, the tenses don't use ending on words, but rather modal verbs and time clauses. There are a whole class of verbs, also, that are not negated but instead have an entirely different word, for instance sedia for "do" and jangan for "don't." On top of that, the syntax, or sentence construction, is the equivalent of the passive voice in English, where the object and subject are reversed, and you rarely address someone directly, instead speaking directly to them in the third person. Takes some getting used to.
Once you have mastered this mind-numbing reversal, though, then you realize that Mandarin is very similar, so learning to speak it is just a matter of vocabulary (back to the matrix). Reading and writing are entirely different problems that some day I intend to tackle.
The most interesting experience in learning new languages is the day you actually start thinking in that language. This is a very profound experience that can actually change the way you see the world. Though the initial exhilaration eventually wears off, with some practice, you can actually use this process to examine problems from angles you never thought existed before.
My favorite part of learning new languages are the idioms, those things that are unique to cultures that use the language. For instance, in German there is an emotion that you cannot have in English. It is called Gemütlichkeit. It is often translated as "cozy," but this is a pale word by comparison. There is no English equivalent. In Indonesian, there is jayus, which is laughing at how unfunny a joke is. In Spanish, there is a verb, estrenar, that is just for the first use of a thing.
In addition to untranslatable words, there are expressions in every language that only make sense in that language, within its milieu. Some great Indonesian examples include polisi tidur, malu-malu kucing and tidur ayam. The first refers to a speed bump, though it literally means "sleeping police." The second translates roughly as "coy," but literally means "shy-shy cat." The last is funny because in English, we call it a "cat nap," but in Indonesian, it's a "chicken sleep."
There's even great idioms in English dialects. For instance, in Texas, the future tense is formed by adding "fixin' ta" before the main verb of a sentence.
I've long been of the opinion that everyone should thoroughly learn at least one other language. The effort pays off in many unexpected ways, such as being able to express things that cannot be expressed in one's native tongue, as well as the experience of seeing the world from completely different perspectives.
Sadly, many native English speakers never learn other languages. It is too easy to be lazy when one speaks the most common foreign language in the world. However, one is missing out on a whole spectrum of human experience that can only be had by seeing the world through different tongues.
This topic, though, reminds me of an old joke:
The person who speaks three or more languages is a polyglot.
The person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
The person who only speaks one language is British.