Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.