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Language Exercises in Futility

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I am a native English speaker with a love-hate relationship with foreign languages. Along with fantasy novels, video games, and heavy metal, language learning has been a big part of my life. Yet unlike my other hobbies and passions, the study of European languages has been by far the least enjoyable for me. I often ask myself whether I am wasting my time, and ultimately my life, by developing and maintaining a skill where the costs often outweigh the rewards.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about the study of languages other than English. We are all aware that, for better or worse, English has become the Lingua Franca of the modern age. For work, travel, and the comprehension of mass-media entertainment, one can often get by just knowing English. So naturally, it benefits non-native English speakers to learn English, which the younger generations have started to learn during adolescence and primary schools. So for the sake of this article, I will focus on language learning for people who already know English.

I have a background with languages. My grandmother spoke a few languages, and while both my parents preferred to speak English, they could use their secondary languages when necessary. I also spent many evenings as a teenager trying to translate the lyrics, songs and album titles of the many Scandinavian metal bands I grew up listening to.

I have even made a modest career out of foreign languages. More precisely, I have used my foreign language skills in every job I’ve had for the last several years. From software testing, document translation, and even writing online advertisements, I am very fortunate and grateful to have found jobs where I could use and apply my language skills.

Naturally, these jobs have often been contract jobs or short-term assignments. This has allowed me to work and travel in different places for different companies. While moving from place-to-place and contract-to-contract has definitely had its advantages, there have also been a few disadvantages. For example, it can be tough to stay in touch with family and friends when moving and relocating for a new job. It can also create some challenges in regards to dating and maintaining a long-term relationship. Regardless, I often think how my life may have been different if, instead of relocating for each language job, I had sought a different career path where I could have more easily stayed in the same area these last few years.

Perhaps the main reason I sometimes hate language learning is simply because the payoff is often too little for the overall investment required. There are numerous websites and articles that detail the endless uphill struggles adults face when attempting to learn a foreign language. One of the most common complaints is that even after countless hours of lessons, studying and practicing, language learners are often told by native speakers to “just speak English.” This despite their best efforts and intentions to speak the native language to native speakers of that country or region.

In a way this makes sense, as workers at airports, hotels, and restaurants are often too busy with their own work to act as a tutor or “language partner” to a tourist that wants to check into their hotel or order a cheeseburger in Estonian. At the same time, I could only imagine the frustration a student of the Estonian language would have, traveling to Estonia and attempting to speak the language, only to be told by native speakers to just speak English.

There is an old saying that explains how anything worth having in life is worth the effort. This is often said by fitness enthusiasts in regards to having and maintaining a physically fit body. In many ways, working out and being in-shape share a lot of similarities to learning a language. For example, a person might spend years dieting and exercising with the goal to burn belly-fat and get six-pack abs.

If and when they do achieve these goals, they have to continue working just as hard to maintain their physique. The countless hours of hard work could all be thrown away if the person simply decided to stop working out or to not follow certain diet guidelines. Hence the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” As for languages, this has definitely happened to me, as I also have embarrassingly forgotten most of a language I had spoken comfortably in my 20s. All because I stopped practicing and using it every day.

One difference between exercise and language, however, is that the benefits of exercise can be visually seen and felt over time. With language learning, the overall achievements and improvements are far more subtle and much less noticeable. There is also the harsh reality that adults have a much harder time learning a second language than do young children and teenagers. These are just some of the many reasons why many adults give up on learning a foreign language.

Yet despite all these challenges and frequent frustrations, I’m still strongly passionate about learning European languages. After all, European languages are a part of our identity. Our identity as white people comes not only from our ancestors, but also from their histories, art, and culture. All of which were written down in various European languages.

And just as I want the people of Europe to survive, so too do I want the languages of Europe to survive. I want the Danish language to survive. I want the Finnish language to survive. Our languages, just like our people, have the right to survive and be preserved.

Yes, languages always change and evolve. There will always be distinct differences between the written language and the spoken language. And for many people that attempt to learn a second language, they may never speak it as well as their native tongue. I myself am far better at reading and writing in my secondary languages than speaking or listening. Nevertheless, language learning is a great hobby that can exercise the brain while also allowing you to get more in touch with the history, art and culture of your ancestors.

As a person of proud Danish ancestry, I have greatly enjoyed reading the original works of H. C. Andersen in Danish. Yes, there are many times I have to look up words and re-read a paragraph numerous times to fully understand it, while I could have easily read the story in English in half the time. Yet there will always be certain things that are lost in translation, and I always get immense satisfaction when I can read something in its original language as opposed to its English translation.

Think about all the time we spend on social media or using apps on our cell phones each and every day. If you dedicated 30 minutes each day to learning a language, by the end of the year, you would have put in close to 180 hours. You probably wouldn’t be fluent in a language by then, but you might be able to start reading websites in that language or be able to decipher many words and sentences at an airport, hotel, or restaurant when traveling. Or better yet, you might be able to start reading a classic novel or sing the lyrics to a folk song of your ancestors.

There are still those times where I question whether learning and maintaining a foreign language is worth all the time and effort. The rewards and payoffs may be few and far between, but at least for me, those experiences have been more memorable than my other hobbies. After all, I still remember all those Scandinavian metal songs by heart. So while I definitely wouldn’t recommend a career in foreign languages, I can at least recommend learning a non-English European language as a fun and challenging hobby.

Goethe famously stated that “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” Perhaps the same can be said of all our white brothers and sisters around the world. We might use English to communicate with each other at conferences and concerts, but we should also work together to preserve our European languages, just as we are trying to preserve our countries and cultures. Whether it be the language you grew up speaking, or one of the many languages of your family tree, our European languages are a part of us. Just as we should not be replaced, neither should our countries, our cultures, or our languages.

 

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21 Comments

  1. bluto
    Posted January 17, 2020 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Well, the key to truly understanding English is to know several other languages, so it’s particularly necessary to those who want to work with English properly, in a constructive way. Old Wolfgang von was absolutely spot on there.

    Once you get into the etymology of English this all becomes clearly evident.

    If you understand the origins of the Lego blocks which make up our words (an appeal to your Danishness there), you find ways to put them together to gain more semantic precision, which can have a very real effect.

    Etymonline makes a great home-page for web browers.

    It’s a great shame that classic languages are no longer taught as part of the general curriculum.

  2. John Scroggins
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s an interesting experience being an Englishman and interacting with the world of languages. Though English is present everywhere, people know it without knowing anything of our tales and our stories. It is language completely devoid of history, taught so people can make business deals.

    It is also common to meet English speakers whom have never met an Englishman in their life – I am often received by such people with great aplomb. Some small benefit of globalisation, perhaps.

  3. Johannes
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Funny sidenote: Hans Christian Andersen was snubbed in Denmark, moved to Germany, wrote his fairy tales in German, became famous in Germany, and later moved back to Denmark when they had realized how good an author he was.

    • Felix Krull
      Posted January 14, 2020 at 3:25 am | Permalink

      Nonsense. Who told you that?

  4. Dennis
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    “Along with fantasy novels, video games, and heavy metal, language learning has been a big part of my life…I often ask myself whether I am wasting my time, and ultimately my life…”

    This reads as if a parody of some kind, but I assume it was meant seriously. Of the four things listed – ‘fantasy’ novels, video games, heavy metal, languages – learning languages is actually the only one that would not prompt a “yes” answer to the question of whether you are wasting your time and life on such things.

    • Orcish Scribe
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Well, the first three provide pure, unadulterated pleasure, while languages are hard work with arguable benefit. For example, mortifying the flesh would be unpleasant and of doubtful benefit. Still, people have done this in history. The question is whether language learning falls into that category.

      I wish the author of the article would write about his favorite fantasy novels for us.

    • Posted January 15, 2020 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      What, people should not have pastimes, they shouldn’t rest? “Wasting time” is such a dead-end bourgeois concept, often propagated by beavers masquerading as men.

      • Dennis
        Posted January 15, 2020 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Of course one should have hobbies and pastimes. But intelligent ones that lend themselves to the full blossoming of one’s mind and spirit, such as exploring genuine art, literature, music (and even the study of languages), etc. “Fantasy” novels (as opposed to real literature), video games, and heavy metal are precisely the bourgeois dead ends you decry, the brainless products of a consumer culture designed to lobotomize people and turn them into stimulus addicted automatons.

        • Posted January 15, 2020 at 9:15 am | Permalink

          I’ve never seen anyone get more annoying or more pretentious from listening to a metal album, or from playing a fantasy game, but I’ve seen a lot of people start thinking they’re intellectuals because they’ve read a Jane Austen novel.

          As for fantasy literature, it’s certainly more real than the introspections of mentally unstable women. Frodo is more realistic than a Virginia Woolf character.

          • Dennis
            Posted January 15, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            If you think I am recommending Jane Austen (who I’d put in basically the same category as current “best-seller” chick-lit) or Virginia Woolf (the most over-rated of the moderns, and routinely trotted out by PC critics looking deperately for a woman to mention in the same sentence as Joyce, Proust, Broch, Mann, Musil, etc…), you’re way off base.

            I’d love to meet these “lots of people” who supposedly think reading Jane Austen makes them intellectuals. Must be a bizarrely fascinating group.

          • Orcish Scribe
            Posted January 15, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            Well put your money down on what you consider “art.”
            Fantasy at its best is the highest order of literature. Homer, Aeneid, Mallory, Dante, all wrote fantasy. Tolkien is their literary successor, not Woolf and Kate Chopin.

          • Posted January 15, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

            You know what Joyce, Proust, Broch, Mann, Musil, all have in common?

            They’re very boring.

  5. Orcish Scribe
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I wrestle with many activities, not just languages but other things, as to whether what I like to do is what I should do, and reassessing activities as to how rationally profitable they will be to me. This is a mistake I have found; do what you dig! If you say, study the stock market because investing will earn you money, but you simply hate these pointless analytic devices designed to defraud the masses, you will not do it well because you have no zest for it.

    Also, you omit the wellness angle in your analysis. Exercise is most important for health, controlling your cholesterol and sugar, and a general sense of well being. A beach body and looking good are secondary, but useful in ways, such as attracting good mates and friends. But then there are downsides to beware of, such as degenerative arthritis later in life. Don’t run on concrete sidewalks in your twenties and thirties or you’ll pay for it later.

    Likewise with languages. Have you considered the cognitive exercise and optimization that comes with the effort of studying a language? This sharpens your mind and wards off diseases of cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s. Mastering a language may be to the mind as getting up to twenty pull ups is to the body. Some activities are their own reward. Oliver Wendell Holmes read in Greek and Latin every day. George Borrow knew eighty languages and William Barnes upwards of sixty!

    That said, some hierarchy of languages does exist. I personally study languages for literature and a body of great literature is a necessity for my motivation to any language. An idiosyncratic thing like Estonian can’t have much of a body of literature, although perhaps metal lyrics is what the author is after. I’m currently learning Japanese because there is a huge body of favorite authors whose work is untranslated! A fiendishly difficult language let me add! Similar could be said for Chinese, in addition to being a more useful world language, and to flatter our soon to be masters. But I have more ZEST for Japanese. Similarly I study Spanish for utility reasons, but somehow French poetry simply has much greater philosophical depth and beauty, and I’m more drawn to it.

    • ECD
      Posted January 15, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      The University of California requires two years of foreign language—both in the same language—for admission. There was no Internet option back when I was in high school, so I was basically forced into two years of Spanish. It was a miserable slog for the same reason you mentioned: I have no special affinity for Spanish, nor Spanish culture, and there was little-to-nothing that I wanted to consume in the Spanish language.

      Later, at my own leisure, I started studying Japanese—and then Russian. What a difference! I never would have imagined how enjoyable learning a language could be when done at one’s own pace, down lines of investigation of one’s own interest, as one chooses.

      Yes, it takes years to master enough grammar (nevermind vocabulary!) to readily translate even casual written Japanese. But I got there, and reading along with song lyrics, or grinding through an as-yet untranslated manga, is quite rewarding. Alas, while Japanese people can understand what I say to them, it is a rare occasion that I can decode what they say back to me with any kind of speed.

      I’m not sure if I will ever be able to grammatically render many Russian sentences. Nevertheless, just being able to deconstruct a single passage, bit-by-bit, tickles my brain tremendously.

    • Dennis
      Posted January 15, 2020 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Since there is for some reason no “reply” button above:

      “Homer, Aeneid (sic; you mean Virgil), Mallory, Dante, all wrote fantasy.” No, not as the contemporary genre of “fantasy” is conceived and understood (and the same applies to related genres, such as “graphic novels,” that ridiculously grandiose term applied to comic books). If that were the case, “fantasy” could be applied to any fiction or poetry at all, which would be an absurdly overbroad definition (and you certainly won’t find Homer, Virgil, or Dante in the “fantasy” section of any bookstore).

      Tolkien is pseudo-mediaeval pastiche, suitable perhaps for 12-15 year-old boys, but something one should grow out of (like video games and heavy metal), and not to be taken seriously as literature.

      • Orcish Scribe
        Posted January 15, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        But again you evade, what do YOU consider art? Open yourself up.

        I suppose the difference between those ancients and the modern fantasist is that the ancients actually believed the things they wrote were true or could happen, which is sad in a way. Not Ovid, he tells us he thought the stories were made up. Maybe something too about having grown out of an organic religious tradition—idk. The official “inventor” of fantasy was William Morris, when he wrote books consciously set in a reality that never was, like middle earth. The best fantasy and poetic traditions scratch the same spiritual itch in my opinion.

  6. uomo occidentale
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Subconsciously inspired by this article, I started learning Italian this morning (I have a fair amount of experience with Spanish). I need something to do while I work out. The unfortunately thing, though, is that the reason for my recent extreme workout boredom is that youtube has banned the vast majority of content creators that I previously listened to, not to mention walling me off from any new ones (they are pushing JBP and Joe Rogan relentlessly upon me lol).

    Anyways, great article. Mille grazie!

  7. Amas
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    There’s an Irish saying that goes, “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” -A country without a language is a country without a soul. A language is a large part of a people’s worldview. As you say, it’s up to us to preserve our heritage and our languages are a great part of that.

    • Felix Krull
      Posted January 14, 2020 at 3:31 am | Permalink

      A country without a language is a country without a soul.

      And a language without a country is a language without a body.

      Like, say, Gaelic, a zombie language where the act of speaking the language is in itself seen as a cultural achievement.

      • Bob
        Posted January 14, 2020 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        Hebrew was a zombie language. But Zionists realized they if they were going to create the sort of Jewish identity needed to sustain a nation, they’d have to resurrect the language, and they did.

        If Ireland is to be a real nation they may have to make Gaelic into a real language, one that is used in a day to day way.

  8. Posted January 13, 2020 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    “An optimist learns English. A pessimist learns Chinese. A realist buys an AK 47.”
    Russian saying from the 90s.

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