Because Why Not: Polyglottery and Language Learning for Kicks

I accidentally stumbled upon a very interesting website yesterday called Foreign Language Music, which features songs in various languages with lyrics in the original language, literal English translations and other info and tools (including guitar chords) to help you appreciate the song in the original language.  The guy who runs the site also has a series of YouTube videos featuring "polyliteracy readings," which are basically line-by-line readings and translations of texts in foreign languages which anyone can watch and appreciate.  Upon discovering this, I entered a sort of frenzy in which the Internet once again suddenly became a fascinating, magical land of resources.  I began to follow links and click on things, and ended up awakening the groggy and hesitant but definite aspiring polyglot in me.

There's a new book out by Michael Erard that I'm now interested in reading, Babel No More, which deals with hyperpolyglots.  One of those featured is Alexander Arguelles, who has an interesting YouTube channel himself with videos on various aspects of language learning.  Here he talks about how the Erard book is an important step forward for the recognition of polyglottery, but that at the same time the view of it as being quite an eccentric, singular thing persists, when in fact there is nothing so mysterious or peculiar about it.

He also talks about his desire to appreciate languages as ends in themselves, which is something that resonates strongly with me.

Language appreciation is not exactly a prevalent phenomenon in the United States.  While language learning is a respected discipline, it often is assumed to go hand-in-hand with travel and/or prolonged residence in another country.  While studying the passé simple tense in my high school French class, there was constant whining along the lines of "When are we ever going to use this?"  The fact that it was reserved for literature and history textbooks appeared to render it practically archaic in the minds of my peers.  Truth be told, I was not especially enthusiastic about learning it myself at the time, but it seemed odd to me that the attitude should generally be that we were less likely to want to read a work of classic French literature than to make a purchase at a boulangerie.  Frankly, while I'm very interested in travel, buying bread seems less interesting, or at least less complete, than being able to read and understand Proust.

But honestly, I sometimes wonder if the vast majority of people would even understand the point.  It's not really a question of more or less.  It's a question of why at all?  What will it get you?  How will it benefit you?  Why not just read a translation?  Except we don't really read translations much anymore, either.  Part of appreciating a translation is understanding how fragile it is, and what it isn't.  It could in fact be that if Americans read in more languages, they would read more books in translation, because they would be able to appreciate and take an interest in the art and science of the thing itself.

In any case, something that I feel I'm picking up from all of this is that extensive language learning is very difficult indeed, if not impossible, without having an interest in things that are made of that language and which cannot be rebuilt the same way in another language.  So if you don't like books, music, film, or someone who speaks the language you are trying to learn, the motivation probably isn't there, and won't be, because admiring the lay of the bricks is really quite irrelevant if you don't live in the house.

1 comment:

  1. So, I read quite a few things in translation but never know if the translation is "good". That is, am I missing something implicit in the original wording, some flavor within the language, that doesn't survive translation? I also wonder how mich the sound of a particular language influenced the author's choice of words and how, although those words can be translated accurately, their sounds in the original language cannot. When I read poetry in translation I wonder whether I am reading a poem similar to or quite different from the original. I'm waiting for David Bellos' _Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the meaning of Everything_ Meanwhile, I really appreciate your observations. BDS