Learning a New Language — The North Star Reports – by Kathryn Marquis Hirsch. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
[Photo 1: Russian State Library– largest in the nation and 4th largest in the world. The statue out front is of Dostoevsky.]
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to note that this is our 200th article. A remarkable feat for an all volunteer staff of dedicated student editors and writers. Professor Liang.
As countless many have expressed before, learning other languages not only allows one to converse with more people, it also gives a deeper understanding of other cultures because so much is lost in translation. Spoken language expresses much more than simply noun, verb, tense, and other elements which can be easily translated. (This is why excellent human translators are essential and cannot be replaced by software. Idiomatic speech, nuance, and situational context are largely lost on computers.) To respect the whole of another person or people requires an attempt to understand these elements of language that are less obvious but not insignificant.
In college, I had one professor who insisted that all thoughts are framed in language. All thoughts. Period. Many of my fellow students nodded in ready agreement, or perhaps in the hope our professor would move on, but he would have had better luck convincing a wall than me because I know from my own personal experience as well as from discussions with many others that this is just not true. Some of the thoughts, feelings, and dreams that defy words’ constraints are not only failed by my native English, but are outside of the framework of language. Others, however, are the sort of concepts that “words cannot express,” though it seems like it should be possible if only I could find the right words. One of the great pleasures of learning other languages has been finding such words and terms.
My resistance to my professor’s declaration aside, I do not dispute that languages reflect and influence ways of thinking in an endless circle– this is why they provide an invaluable window into the deeper culture of a people. Certainly my own thoughts have been shaped by English. But a wonderful benefit of learning other languages has been gaining new ways of structuring ideas. From time to time I will learn a concept that exists in Russian or Korean that is so delightfully apt, so perfect, that I wish it existed in English but as it stands it would require paragraphs of explanation or just does not exist at all. It was only possible for me to learn them incrementally, learning vocabulary and grammar and cultural context until I could think in the right steps to lead all the way there.
I do not mean to be a show-off by touting the wondrous expansion of my mind through foreign language study; I imagine those who have lived their entire lives multilingual would find my observations trite. This desire to find the right word is behind the adoption of foreign words found in almost every widely spoken language, and it seems these words or terms are often learned and incorporated rather than translated because they are so suitable just the way they are. Larger concepts are similarly easy to learn and incorporate into one’s thinking, given the foundation to do so. However, I don’t want to minimize the amount of work that I have put into studying other languages, because it does require dedicating one’s effort and time, and I have felt overwhelmed for moments at every stage. People seem to forget what they went through and often ignore what can be observed in young children: learning a language takes years and years of constant work and daily tutoring from every older person around you. It has often been frustrating and humbling, but in spite of starting in my thirties (well past the point where I could hope a nice Russian or Korean couple would adopt me and immerse me in their language), I have been able to progress and I am convinced that this is possible and worthwhile for anyone who wants to learn.
My practical advice would be to mix methods of learning rather than trying to do a strict regimen of only immersion or textbook study. Starting out when you’re older (not a baby), you won’t have time to go through another childhood of learning first to understand then speak then read, and being able to read facilitates the self-study that real progress will require. I’ve found it’s best to take an analytical approach, examining existing habits and ways of thinking about language and comparing these to the language being learned. For example, I think many people whose first language is English are intimidated by the concepts of formal and familiar speech or of masculine and feminine words. But actually, this isn’t entirely foreign to native English speakers. In English, even for a singular “you,” we use “you are” and “you were” instead of the “you is” or “you was” that would fit the overall structure of English. This is counterintuitive and something that native speakers often take some time to pick up on, but by the time we’re older, most of us don’t even realize how irregular it is. Among English speakers, saying “you is” is a common mistake, usually made until the speaker acquires the habit of using plural forms for “you” after of hearing and reading the proper usage. But it’s such a logical mistake to make that no one should beat themselves up over it.
Once you begin to study a different language, it’s not only interesting to see how other languages address these sorts of questions in their system, but also to gain a new perspective on what we do in English and how it works together. I was struck at first by how in Korean, each concept is a root word that is then conjugated into a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective simply by use of the appropriate suffix. It’s really neat and efficient and makes learning vocabulary somewhat easier (in a way). It eventually dawned on me, however, that this isn’t really all that different from what we do in English. Take the word “red” for example- it’s an adjective, right? But in Korean, it would be listed in the dictionary in a form that is at once adjective and noun. “Red” the color: noun. “Red” the attribute: adjective. But in English, it is the same! What does it mean if the apple is red? It exists in a red way. It is in a red state of being. Things can be reddened, or they can redden of their own accord. (Realizations like this please me far too much.)
[Photo 2: A lighting shop in Russia, has nothing to do with the U.S. president, but an interesting false cognate.]
This all goes back to the time and effort factors in learning a language, which would be hard to overstate. If you are a native English speaker like I am, unaccustomed to masculine/feminine/neutral, that’s okay– if your new language uses this concept, you’ll just learn it. Perhaps more important that dedicating time and energy is a willingness to make mistakes and even to make a fool of oneself from time to time with the inevitable misunderstandings and failures you will experience when it comes to actually using a new language. I accept that I will have to spend the rest of my life trying to improve in Russian and Korean, and that I will never master either language. This is also okay– few people ever do. Decades into daily use, I certainly can’t claim that my English is flawless. I will gladly admire the greatest writers and orators in each language along with everyone else.
Learning new languages is a rewarding and enjoyable show of respect. Of course, it would be impossible for any one person to become conversant, let alone fluent, in the language of every person they’ll ever want to interact with in their lifetime. And knowing another language is unlikely to result in some sort of magical meeting of minds; people who share a native tongue are not of a single mind. But it certainly goes a long way toward understanding, and where it falls short, the effort made demonstrates one’s recognition that others have intellectual value and a willingness and desire to connect.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch serves as the Managing Editor of The North Star Reports and is a JD candidate at The university of Minnesota – Twin Cities Law School.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Colombia, Norway, northeastern China, Nicaragua, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, El Salvador, England, Finland, Russia, Cyprus, and Haiti. We also publish student reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu