On Learning a Language

As a nine-year-old boy, while growing up in Kansas, I was once summoned – together with all the neighborhood urchins – to hasten to my best friend’s house to hear an acoustic miracle. He had just gotten a short-wave radio for his birthday, and right off the bat had picked up an extra-terrestrial signal so bizarre, he at once called all his little buddies to come marvel with him. I was first to arrive, and soon one would have seen a troupe of little boys, all with their jaws dropped to the floor, listening to this alien noise.

We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. As it became clear that it was a human voice that was producing the unearthly phonemes, it became not less strange, but more. Looking back at this episode today, it is hard to believe we were just hearing a radio broadcast from Mexico, and that the extra-galactic idiom we were marveling at was common Spanish. That’s how far I was from foreign languages when growing up.

Through no merit of mine, the circumstances of my life were soon to change all that. Now, over four decades thence, I find myself reading seven languages, and speaking three or four pretty well, which is a bit of an accomplishment for a Kansas boy. It did not come easy, and I don’t think it is even particularly desirable; it was my vocation which brought this about, and no cosmopolitan project on my part. I still envy those who grew up in the Netherlands, or even in the Balkans or the Caucasus, and spoke at least two tongues (rather effortlessly) since they were toddlers. I started to learn languages in earnest only in my early 20s, and while not hopelessly late, it is still far more arduous than growing up with two spoken tongues dancing happily on your lonely tongue of flesh. My tongue was already hardened in English at the age of 22.

Having lived for these nearly 50 years in countries where my native tongue was not spoken – almost a year in Belgium and France, three years in Austria and Germany, five years in Italy, eight years in Portugal, over a year in Asia and now almost 30 years in Brazil – I can say I know a thing or two about foreign languages. However, my knowledge comes not from an erudite, ivory-tower study from afar, but from laboring in the field (I almost said forced labor).

My nervous system and gut bear the battle scars of decades of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by my hosts, not getting their jokes and offending them with mine. To truly learn a foreign tongue you will need to hack through the underbrush of the thousands and thousands of things in this world, each of which has a specific word (and ignorance of which turns you into a sputtering imbecile) – and that word is different in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and even in Portuguese. The search for these life-savers never ends. I am grateful for the experience, but also exhausted.

All this makes me dismissive of the idea of ‘mastering’ a foreign language – getting ‘command’ of it. Sure, saying this makes a certain amount of pragmatic sense in ordering at a restaurant and expressing your mundane wishes. But finally, a language – any language (and there are some 6,000 of them out there) – is potentially as big as reality, and the sane among us have given up trying to master that for some time now. At best, we can aspire to navigate more or less skillfully in a language, as one navigates on the ocean, with no ambition whatsoever to master it. Indeed, it masters you.

If you manage to genuinely learn a foreign language, it will be because you have surrendered to it, and not it to you. As with swimming, you swim, rather than drown, when you learn to move your arms and legs in ways that allow the water to hold you up. If you flail and beat the water, it will take you under. Language can similarly lift us up, if only we will just learn a few simple moves and give up trying to bring it under our control.

Beware of those who brag of how many languages they have ‘mastered’. I once met a European who spoke five languages, and he spoke all five of them fluently (without hesitation) and all five of them he spoke poorly. Even in his native tongue, rules of grammar and diction never slowed him down. He was one of the most uncultured men I ever knew, but he was a polyglot! Now polyglots, like polygamists, typically have an issue when it comes to fidelity.

If you are a diplomat or a language scholar, I’ll give you a pass. But for the normal folks among us, I strongly discourage pursuing the promiscuous career of being a polyglot. There is much to be gained, however, by learning one foreign language, if for no other reason than that it helps you learn your mother tongue better. Goethe said of languages: “if you only know one, you know none,” meaning that full awareness of language, and especially of your own, is powerfully aided by the contrast of a second language, which throws the first into perspective.

So I recommend to my students the study of only three languages. First, learn your native tongue better and more deeply; read its best literature, study its history, get fascinated by the linguistic miracle through which you were introduced to reality. Secondly, study one modern European language, and try to travel, if possible, to where it is spoken. If not possible, you have multiple resources today in the virtual realm (for my money, I would recommend the method of Michel Thomas).

Thirdly, if you are truly interested in penetrating the deeper dimensions of any of our great traditions, study one of the principle classical languages. I would recommend Latin, but Greek, or (for the intrepid) Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan or Japanese, will also do (only one, please!). These languages, in their classical forms, open depths (often with small vocabularies, but rich grammars) that our modern tongues have mostly lost (with huge, sprawling vocabularies, and grammars that seem to grow more impoverished by the year).

Being a polyglot should be no more coveted than being polydactyl. So learn your mother tongue well; learn a second tongue pretty well; and, ideally, enter also into the oracular world of a classical tongue. Finally languages, like the world itself, are things we live in and not objects we master. In this way, you will soon find wonderful words, revealing words – the kind of word that spark intuitions and sire contemplations – and hear them pouring out of your heart and poising themselves, precariously but hopefully, on the diving-board of your tongue.

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