A Thought:  The point of Learning Languages

A life lesson on a train over a bottle of vodka with some Norwegians...

At school I approached foreign languages pretty much like mathematics or science. The work was book-based, with a lot of emphasis on accuracy and grammar. I learnt Latin like this for years - but today I can hardly string a Latin sentence together. My experience of learning German was completely different, due to a wonderful German woman who lived next door. However, even after learning in a more oral context, I still thought hadn't really understood the point of learning languages.

All that changed on holiday in the late 80's on a train through Germany when I had an experience that changed how I look at learning foreign languages. I shared the carriage with three Norwegians who, unusually, didn't speak much English. I knew Danish and the two languages are similar enough that I expected to get the drift of what they were talking about. However, they all came from the same remote village somewhere and in fact I couldn't understand much at all. I decided to abandon efforts at conversing with them and cracked open a bottle of vodka. To my great surprise, sharing this around the carriage actually improved our communication no end. Since strong alcohol could hardly have been expected to improve my accuracy at listening or verbal recall, this was a most unexpected jolt to the view of language as technical discipline.

This now seems to me now to pose no contradiction at all. I look on languages as a means to an end - communication - that is, thinking in sympathy with others. It took this experience to help me to 'think outside the box' and see language learning in a new light. Later experiences have propelled me further than ever from my original formal view. I've learnt a lot from communicating with a good friend of mine who is profoundly deaf. She is fairly good at lip-reading and very sensitive to people's moods which she reads though inaudible elements of conversation such as body language. We have a language which is a mixture of gestures I've made up as well as signs and words from Bangladesh, UK, USA and Korea and I don't know (or care particularly) which is which. I do care that it serves a purpose to communicate, which it generally does. A far cry from how I originally approached the task of learning Latin.

2006-07-22 Robin Upton