It’s so obvious as to be easy to forget, but language skill is a major factor in our feeling at home somewhere, and lack of it a major hindrance to supposed global citizenship.
Where you can’t make yourself understood without making yourself feel like an idiot, you are probably not going to feel quite at home. Where, on the other hand, everyone speaks just as you do, it’s easy to feel at ease.
So, for being at home in this world, it may be advisable to know more than just your mother tongue. In fact, having a different “father tongue” or speaking differently in a context other than the family is more commonly the case than may often be realized.
If you grow up in a country or region where one language is dominant, you may very well end up knowing only that language and hardly ever thinking anything much about it. If that dominant language is English, you may be in a particularly advantageous situation, because many (if not most) others around the world will try to speak your language.
Put in a multilingual context, it can be just as normal and natural to expect everyone to know more than one language. In fact, that may have been a rather common situation wherever trade was going on – and it is still the norm in many a place of higher linguistic diversity. Thus, chances are that you’ll have the advantage of growing up bi- or even multilingual.
Even in the English-speaking world – as imperfect an illustration as this may be – there are considerable differences in the ways that different “Englishes” are spoken. We think of it all as the English language, and it is not as diverse as to count as more than different varieties – but still, put an upper-crust Brit in a room with a New York cabbie, or a Scotsman together with a New England debutante (or Siri…), and communication might get a bit difficult – even though they all arguably speak the same language.
Lots has been written about language learning, in every which way. Recently, blogs by people who are studying a particular language, are or try to become polyglot, or have languages among the many things they learn as part of their personal development challenges, have become particularly popular. Even the New York Times got to the issue just recently.
I honestly have a problem with many of them.
In part, it is probably envy. I have learned something of several languages, probably enough to qualify me as a hyperpolyglot – if only I knew and remembered enough of them. But, I don’t.
It’s also a more serious issue, though. Not being a linguist studying languages professionally, not being a (full-time) student anymore, but living with a significant other, having a household to keep, lots of work to do, and the hustle for an income, there just isn’t much time and energy for the consistent practice that language learning (or even just simple maintenance of language skill) requires.
Thus, I find the blogs of people who make a living with their crazy language hacking, move to countries where the language they want to learn is spoken on a whim, and define their level of skill in whichever way they want, rather disingenuous.
It’s nice to see a passion for multilingualism (and I really hope I can get that back myself), but what I would really like to hear more about is how people who have a family and a day job (and one in which they are not surrounded by the languages they want to learn) manage to find the motivation and time.
Part-time studies and part-time work I last did in Latvia had left just enough time and energy to make it to Latvian and Russian courses, but not necessarily to enjoy them; the time in China should have given good reason to study the language more and better, but teaching German and doing freelance work (and finding a girlfriend who spoke very good English and German…) wasn’t exactly conducive to that, either.
We’ll see how things go now that I am (also) heading back to university to pick up the teacher training studies again… I certainly have been finding a bit of a fascination with languages again, still don’t like to hear that I should focus on only one, but won’t try to get good at several anymore, maybe all at the same time.
Funny thing with the forgetting, though: It goes quickly, but it’s all not completely erased from memory. Just, not quite accessible. Time to make the time to get it back.