Languages I’ve Barely Heard Of

by | Oct 12, 2023 | What I'm Thinking | 1 comment

[From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository]

I’m finally getting serious about learning Spanish. It’s been an ongoing “goal” but lately I feel more motivated because my grandson, who is learning to talk, is learning both English and Spanish. I’ve been using the Mango app (free from my public library) more consistently—in other words, nearly every day for 20-30 minutes, and I’m also taking a free Spanish class at my public library. I love the class! The teacher mostly teaches children and she uses the same techniques with us adults—games and songs and role play situations. I’ve also been brushing up on my German—the language I started learning as a child growing up on a U.S. military base in Germany and then further developed in high school and college but that has gotten not just rusty but actually rusted out, with big holes in places where the rust has completely eaten it away. 

Often when I travel to a non-English speaking country I am reminded of how lucky I am to speak English. It has become the lingua franca (ironically for the French, who are likely still fuming) of much of the world. A few years ago, in a breakfast restaurant in Amsterdam, I apologized to a server for not speaking Dutch before I began to order and she responded (in English), oh, I don’t speak Dutch either. (She was from Poland.) And pretty much everyone in Amsterdam, that immigrant-rich city, uses English as their common language whether they are coming from Poland or Suriname, from what I can tell. I would say that signage in English is more common in Norwegian urban areas than Norwegian, and while less common, not hard to find in Istanbul either. Possibly as a result, we English speakers, and especially we American English speakers, tend to be horribly ignorant of the world’s linguistic diversity. An even more years ago experience: following televised opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a co-worker commented that she had never before realized that people of different countries have their own names for their own countries!!!! (How dare they!)

And yet, this is not necessarily the full experience of the world’s langugages. My husband’s work brings him in contact with people from a wide range of nations. The other day, he had a client whose first language was Telegu, a language I had never heard of that is spoken by some 96 million people, primarily in southeastern India. The next day, he met with a native speaker of Kichwa (estimated 500,000 speakers). I had heard of Quechua, but I didn’t realize that that this language of indigenous Andean people was divided into these subsets. I remember a story from our son when he visited Peru while studying Spanish in high school: he wandered into a sort of town hall where a public meeting was being held and thought, wow, my Spanish is a lot worse than I thought until he realized that the people in the meeting weren’t speaking Spanish at all, but a Quechuan language. 

Want to guess the most widely spoken languages in the world? I don’t know how to write the answers upside down, but here they are, according to Statista: English (nearly 1.5 billion speakers); Mandarin (a little over 1.1 billion); Hindi (a little over 600 million); Spanish (a little over 500 million). After that, it’s French, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu. 

Is there a value in learning other languages if you already speak the world’s most widely spoken language? I think so. In college I studied (in a superficial, undergraduate kind of way) the work of Benjamin Whorf, a promoter of the concept of linguistic relativity. Basically, he argued that the linguistic structures of the language you speak affects the way you see the world. A minor example: in English, we say “I am hungry;” in German, it’s “I have hunger.” Both speakers are no doubt longing for food, and yet….

Anyway, according to Wikipedia, Whorf’s views fell out of favor (before my professors were even promoting him to me!) but he is coming back into fashion. So for whatever it’s worth, I plan to keep plugging away at my Spanish, if for no other reason than to enjoy the look of surprise on someone’s face if I manage to address them in a way the reflects some knowledge of their language.