On Learning Languages (1)


So, I’ve always had a bit of a problem: there are far too many things I want to learn, and far too few hours in the day to actually do so. (See earlier post where someone felt obliged to inform my teenage self that trying to do two doctorates – in theoretical physics and medieval literature – was an exceedingly impractical idea.)

Perhaps this becomes most obvious, however, when we’re talking about foreign languages. A somewhat infamous example from my childhood may illustrate: when I was in Grade 3, my mother asked me what I wanted to study in school the next year. Because of the flexibility that homeschooling allowed, this was a fairly normal occurrence: if there was a topic that I was particularly interested in, it could usually be incorporated into the curriculum somehow. This was, for instance, how I ended up doing Grade 11 Chemistry at age ten: I told my mother I wanted to study chemistry, she found and bought an appropriate textbook, and I studied high school chemistry. (In sufficient depth that I walked straight into Grade 12 gifted chemistry in my first semester of high school, on the strength of work I’d done four years previous.)

When I was in Grade 3, however, my answer was not chemistry. Instead, it was a list of about a dozen languages, including more normal culprits like Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, but also including a fair number of more obscure languages, like Finnish and Swahili.

(My longsuffering mother, who of course spoke none of the above, resorted to finding all the Berlitz language courses that were available from the library, and acquiring a whole series of books with titles like “First Thousand Words in French/Spanish/German/Latin/Japanese/Hebrew/etc.”)

I really don’t know where this interest came from – I can’t say Tolkien, because I hadn’t read any of The Lord of the Rings books at the time and didn’t know anything about Tolkien the linguist outside of, well, The Hobbit. (Discovering Tolkien admittedly provided much inspiration – but the interest seems to predate my exposure to him.) Certainly I was exposed to other languages from an early age: Latin and Greek show up on my homeschool report cards as early as Grade 1 or 2, and my parents always put a great emphasis on French, despite the fact that neither of them speak it particularly well – we read children’s books in French, my mother organized a French reading group at the local library, she arranged for various exchange students to come and give lessons, we had “French days”, on which no one (other than my father, who couldn’t manage this) was allowed to speak English, and we watched French films.

This latter activity, in fact, was a tried-and-true method that my sister and I used as children if we wanted to watch television – although watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in English might be an unprofitable use of time, watching them in French was educational. (I still use the same reasoning to justify to myself the time I spend watching musicals like Roméo et Juliette and Notre Dame de Paris.)

Then I did discover Tolkien, shortly before competing in various spelling competitions, and my interests shifted to the elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, and the real-world languages they were inspired by – Finnish and Welsh. I really liked Finnish, but gave up on it fairly fast, mostly because … well, I have no problems with inflected languages. I’ve spend a lot of time studying them, and they allow for so many rhetorical effects that simply don’t translate into modern English, because our language no longer allows for them. But instead of the entirely reasonable four or five cases for nouns that Old English or Latin might have, Finnish has fifteen – nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, exessive, translative, instructive, abessive, and comitative.

(This is also why, at least in my opinion, Mandarin is a breath of fresh air: sure, the writing system involves a ton of memorization, but there are no inflections!)


The thing about learning languages, of course, is that once you’ve learned one or two, it becomes much easier to learn more. My Spanish, for instance, is really not all that great. But I can nonetheless sit down and make sense of newspaper articles or websites in Spanish, because my knowledge of French and Latin means that if I don’t actually know a vocabulary word in Spanish, the chances are really very high that I do know said vocabulary word’s cognate in French or Latin, and can therefore recognize it anyways.

Similarly, tackling German this summer – and this fall – has been a pretty quick study, if you consider that I compressed what Oxford would consider a year-long introductory course into about five weeks of somewhat sporadic poolside study, and then hopped into the intermediate reading course once I arrived. But the reasons for this are entirely straightforward:

1) if you already know how the nominative/genitive/dative/accusative/etc. work, you don’t have to learn again,

2) English and German (and Old English and Old Norse) are sufficiently closely related that if you understand the sound changes that have divided the two langugaes, figuring out the English equivalents of German words is not terribly complicated,

3) I had learned how to pronounce German as a child (thank the spelling bee!); also, many of the sounds that German has (that do not exist in English) are common to other languages that I’d studied,

4) if you know how all the verb tenses with auxiliaries (perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, the various passives, etc.) work in French and English, the German verb system is straightforward.


Now, popular wisdom would say that one should never learn more than one language at a time. This is one of those rules that I glance at every so often, and then shrug my shoulders as I proceed to flout it completely. Let’s face it: you can’t work with – or study – just one language at a time when dealing with early medieval literature. Reading knowledge of English, French, German, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English is not optional for what I’m currently doing – in the last couple months, I’ve had to read and/or translate and/or analyze texts in all of the above. (With varying degrees of facility depending on my experience with the language: everything from “this is a pleasant afternoon’s reading” (French, Old English) to “I require a grammar, a dictionary, and the vast resources of the Internet in order to make sense of this” (scholarly articles in German …).

This is not to mention the other languages that are somewhat less mandatory, but have nonetheless cropped up in the last few weeks: Old French (I was attending a lecture series on Beroul’s Tristan, an Old French romance – and also, a number of the Old Norse riddarasögur were translations or adaptations of Old French texts), Norwegian (Old Norse scholarship, including the only extant translation into any language of an Old Norse mathematical treatise that I have been translating into English), modern Icelandic (again, Old Norse scholarship, including the earliest book I can find on female poets in Old Norse literature) – and, just to make matters more interesting, Quenya (Oxford’s Tolkien society).

Is this potentially confusing? Well, yes – but it is also a large part of why medieval literature is so much fun, and why I’ll (hopefully!) never get bored studying it: there are always going to be more languages to learn.

After all, I would still really like to acquire a more solid working knowledge of Spanish. And be able to speak German, as opposed to just reading it. And learn Italian. And Russian. And Finnish. And Welsh, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Mandarin, Gothic, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old East Slavic, Classical Greek …


… and when actually sitting down to work, practicality must return: German. Let’s see how many more vocabulary flashcards we can make today!

(One of my personal projects over the holidays – in addition to the assigned homework for my Oxford course – is to read The Hobbit in German. So far I’ve gotten about halfway through the first chapter, mostly because I keep stopping to look up every vocabulary word that I’m even slightly unsure about. Might have to stop doing that if I intend to get through the whole thing in the next few weeks!)


One comment on “On Learning Languages (1)

  1. Pingback: On Learning Languages (2) | Merely Inquisitive

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