Once upon a time, during high school, I think, I took one of those daft personality quizzes, or birthday personality profiles or something equally as doubtful, which described me thusly:
“…If you’re looking for hidden motives, you’ll be disappointed. Underneath Jocelyn‘s care and concern for others is more care and concern for others.”
I don’t remember my reaction at the time. However, looking back from almost 10 years ahead of that time, I find myself agreeing with that sentiment.
I have always been asked why I learn languages, especially when I show interest in obscure ones or older forms. For years I have wavered in my explanations, wondering myself where this fascination comes from. The best (i.e. shortest and most coherent) answer was always “because that’s what I do. I learn languages.”
I have an answer now.
Of all places, the final realization came from Star Trek. I have been watching Enterprise lately, and have found myself most identifying with the character Hoshi, Com officer and, you guessed it, gifted linguist. In one episode it is mentioned that she has learned 38 languages. My instant reaction to that was “man, I would love to do that.”
On my way home tonight, I got in front of two young men who were speaking in their native language, something like Hindi. As I walked, listening to them, I was imagining what it would be like to be able to understand them, when a not-so-errant thought dropped into my mind: I learn languages because I want to reach people where they are. I want to understand them on their own terms, with their own words.
Every impulse I have to learn a language, no matter how obscure it may be, or how useless the pursuit may seem to others, is important to me because there are people who speak it, or in the case of dead languages, people who wrote in it. I have dabbled in Icelandic, a language with only 300,000 native speakers, and a friend told me how to pronounce a few words of Turkish when we were out eating döner a few days ago. She was amazed, in an almost skeptical manner, that I could be interested in learning her language. She says, it’s not practical, it’s not useful, why would anyone who speaks English want to learn it?
And those thoughts never once entered my mind. They never do. I want to learn languages because I want to learn languages.
But it doesn’t stop there. I would like to think that it’s a purely academic matter, that I am simply fascinated by and drawn to languages for their own sake, but that is not so.
I love people. Of all races, creeds, stations and nationalities. And what better way to be close to those people than to talk to them using words that they truly understand. Language is not just the expression of a thought, but it instructs thought. Understanding a person’s language can give insight into the very formation of thought.
What more intimate, loving gesture could possibly exist than to seek to understand people in the way that they understand themselves.