Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

On Learning Foreign Languages (Or Anything Else)

A book in German

I’ve never been much good at learning languages. Complete failure is a pretty accurate description of my efforts — I’m 0 for 3 when it comes to trying to pick up foreign languages.

While I’ve never reached the point where I could use a language professionally, or reached the point of having some useful degree of fluency, I know that having even a rudimentary or basic knowledge of a language can come in handy.

Whenever I travel to a country or region where English isn’t spoken, I try to learn at least a bit of the local language. It makes it easier to get around and deal with everyday tasks like shopping and banking. When I was Japan in the early 1990s, for example, I was trying to find my way around the city of Kumamoto. So was a man from Spain I ran into. Between my poor Japanese and his poor English, we were able to get a friendly local to point us in the right directions.

Sometimes, though, knowing the wrong language can cause problems. At the very least, it can cause a few hiccups. At a Belgian train station, I asked an employee (in French) for two tickets to Dusseldorf. He rolled his eyes and gave me something of a nasty look. While he could speak French, it turns out that his first language was Walloon. I won’t go into the cultural and political aspects of language in Belgium, but suffice it to say I’d said the right thing in the wrong language. I explained to him, in French, that I wasn’t from around there and didn’t speak Walloon. That mollified the station employee a bit, and I was able to get my train tickets. He still looked put out, though.

All of that, more or less, was and is the extent of my abilities with the languages I’ve tried to learn or learned for a particular journey.

The point behind these examples? Just as with coding, I don’t think everyone needs to learn to speak another tongue. You definitely shouldn’t do it because of the breathless articles that show up in newspapers or because some pundit says you need to learn the current hot language. Remember when people said Japanese was the language of the future? That didn’t last long, did it?

You should learn a language because you want to learn it. You should learn a language because you’re interested in it, and in the culture of the country or countries where it’s spoken.

Not everyone needs to reach fluency or have professional-level or near-native skills with a language. For many of us, the rudiments and basics — like what you need to get by while travelling — are more than enough.

Like learning anything else, learning a language is a choice. Your choice, not a choice thrust upon you by someone else. You choose to learn a language, to the degree you need to learn it. Or not learn it at all.

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