Languages I Wish I Spoke

Edited version of a Metafilter comment posted on 13 August 2002.

At various points on my travels over the years I've wished that I could speak (or at least read) Afrikaans, Cantonese, Catalan, Dutch, Fijian, Flemish, French, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, German, Greek, Hawai'ian, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Malagasy, Malay, Maori, Scots, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Tongan, Welsh, Zulu, and a few Aboriginal Australian and Native American languages.

My failure to learn any of them (beyond the level of a basic tourist vocabulary in about half, and slightly better than that in French) wasn't down to "native English speaker apathy", it was from being torn in so many different directions. I'd love to be able to speak German, for example, but am not willing to spend years learning it for the sake of another couple of visits to German-speaking areas.

Sure, it'd be great if my country had taught languages earlier than age 12 when I was in school; but even if it had, it would have been impossible to predict which ones would be the most useful. The popular languages in Australian schools in 1980 were French and German (in my school you had to choose one or the other)—this, for kids who lived halfway around the world from Europe, who were more likely to know migrant Italian or Greek or Vietnamese speakers. Later the focus switched to Indonesian and Japanese, but even though they're our "neighbours" they're still an eight or ten hour flight from Sydney or Melbourne.

And those languages wouldn't actually have been the most useful for me. The ones I've most wished I could speak have been Fijian, Tongan and Malagasy, because there's a lot said and written in them that never gets translated. I wonder if they'll introduce Malagasy in the first grade curriculum back home.

Teach kids another language in early childhood by all means, because in learning another language they learn that not everyone looks at the world the way English-speakers do, that the language we speak frames the way we think, and so on. And sure, someone who moves to a non-English-speaking country would do well to learn the local language. But to suggest that some random English-speaker is apathetic, lazy, or arrogant because they don't speak a particular language is pretty dubious.



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