It’s no secret that I am obsessed with learning languages. I learn languages the way I eat food: constantly craving new sounds and sentences, enjoying a good conversation with friends. Unfortunately, languages seem to pass out of my system quite quickly. My Spanish ability quickly advanced to university level 3 in just a couple months and then was quickly forgotten when I went to study in Italy. Italian was forgotten as soon as I went to Korea. Somewhere deep in my brain, I am told the languages lie dormant but I digress.
Today I would like to ask you a question: What is the point?
Do you think it is worth learning languages in this era of google translate and AI’s? Is it worth putting in years of work learning something that a computer could tell you in a matter of seconds? For an English speaker I have a second problem. While solo traveling around hostels, I quickly realized that English was the language of travel; it is how someone from both France and Japan could connect, and it was the language that most people wanted to practice. So the question echoes again: is it worth learning a new language or is merely an inconvenience to other travelers who would much prefer to practice English?
If we merely want language to work as a tool, something we utilize to get what we want, the answer is simple. Languages are no longer worth learning. You can order a panini in Italy with a guide book or a translation app, no problem.
But let’s talk about one reason I really love language: communication. It is possible to communicate in other ways, of course. Body language is an obvious one, but other ways include art, music, and actions. With language we are given the words to communicate highly complicated abstract ideas in a way that art, music, and action cannot, or at least in a way that is unique from those ways. In turn art, music, and action can communicate in a way that words cannot. Language is merely one piece of a very large puzzle when it comes to human expression.
And yet, despite seemingly endless ways to display our inner hearts and souls, dreams and desires, it sometimes still seems impossible to communicate what we are feeling. I don’t know how to say this, we say. I know I’m not the only one who has struggled to find the right word. The more I learn, the more I find the words I have been lacking to paint pictures of the experiences and depth of the world around me. Perhaps that is why some of us turn to music and paintings. We need to bare our souls, pain, and joy through other measures.
I turn to new languages the way a musician turns to his instruments. They are filled with new sounds that have a new melody. People say German sounds angry. French has often been praised for the language of love. These languages have a melody of their own. I turn to them to play a tune, not just with the meaning that they are saying but also the sounds I can use to say it. I turn to new languages like a painter to his canvas, one who longs for new colors and light to paint. Through languages I am given new words or idioms which capture a meaning that I have inside that I desire to express.
“It is a heart color,” my friend told me decidedly.
“You mean it is blue?” I tried to clarify.
“No… I mean it is blue, but it is also that feeling of looking at beautiful scenery. It can be blue or green. It is more than just the color.”
Korean has a word for that color that I have so often felt looking out at the endless blue green sea.
Language learning is not only means for personal communication, it is also inseparable from cultural transmission. In Korea, a common greeting is “Have you eaten rice?” Perhaps it sounds a bit strange to someone who eats rice occasionally, but to a girl who has grown up not only eating rice but also learning that giving food is a way to show love, the phrase sounds very warm and caring. There is a new part of me I have a voice for, and I also am able to enter deeper into a larger culture filled with ideas of hospitality and even history.
Without the language of a given culture, that culture cannot maintain its full integrity. When learning a language, we are able to enter a new experience and tradition in a beautiful and meaningful way, and we are able to participate in keeping that culture alive. I have often wished that I had grown up learning the languages of my heritage, particularly Tagalog. It is a dying language so my Filipino grandmother thought there was no point to teach her own language to us. Instead she became an English teacher and is proud of our clear American English. But I am determined to go back and learn at least a bit of Tagalog some day. There is a part of me from there, and it is a part of me I would like to find. Perhaps through language, I can express just a little bit more of that side of my heart.
I would like to take a moment to explain that I am not genius when it comes to languages. I am deeply, deeply grateful for the gift I have to pick up languages more quickly than others, but it still takes hours of pen to paper and flash cards and painfully slow and often embarrassing conversations before I learn languages. And perhaps it is due to my laziness but I often lose the languages before I have really mastered them, as I mentioned before.
The point is not that we have to be hyper-intelligent, fluent polyglots–although that sounds lovely to me. The point is that no matter how globalized our world becomes… as long as we are humans filled with rich thoughts and pain and desires and joy we will need rich, deep ways of expressing ourselves. It is not about whether or not “they” can speak English or whether or not we will be able to “use” the language on a trip. It is about what we can do to give voice to ourselves. It is about the intrinsic beauty a language can hold.
So with that in mind I am going to study the languages I want to learn no matter how practical or rarely spoken. I am going to learn random beautiful phrases of languages I have no intention of learning extensively into, and I am going to delve deep into languages that capture my heart and give me the melody to express it.