Most of us take the Edmund Hillary approach to our lives: Why? Because it’s there.
Whenever we think about our families, our careers, our hobbies or even our politics, we glide over the nuances of our potential options, and simply plough ahead along the path that we have worn away over the preceding years. The path may not even be our own, but may be an inherited furrow, ploughed by generations before us.
How is this relevant to the Babel Project? As I reach the mid-point of my second month in this endeavour, I am starting to take stock of how much I have signed myself up for. This is in the context of a series of life commitments that were not particularly leisurely before I attempted to learn five languages simultaneously.
Why? Why should the average middle-aged male with a job, a wife and children suddenly decide that he wants to pick up five languages all at the same time? Is this a socially-acceptable mid-life crisis? Let me just say that I have already owned a sports car, and it was a waste of time. And my wife used to be blonde, and I like her how she is now, just fine.
Yes, I wanted this experiment to examine different language learning methods, but I am realising that the similarities are greater than the differences. Regardless of learning approach, you will still benefit from a well-structured program; an enthusiastic teacher is an invaluable help; homework is inescapable if you want to succeed; a good ear never hurts.
The first time I seriously attempted to learn a foreign language, I did a miniature version of this Project. On a university exchange year, I took beginner French and German – German from 8-9 and French from 9-10, 4 mornings a week.
Because it was university exchange, I was in another country. It was the beginning of what would be over 10 years abroad. That was why I had chosen to learn French and German – I wanted to live in Europe for a while. Part of the attraction was the chance to be different. It is easy to become part of the mass, but once you are abroad, there is the possibility of re-invention, of exotica.
What I learned in those 10 years was – in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai – “No matter where you go; there you are.” Yes you can be ‘that person’, the Australian who speaks German (I was that person for a few years), but you remains you.
I chose the five languages in this Project – Polish, Arabic, Korean, Hindi and Chinese – partly because they were all unrelated to English or to each other. I am now wondering whether each represents a range of “exotic”, an opportunity to re-invent myself in the new language.
I like the idea of travelling to a non-English speaking country and being able to communicate. I am even hopeful of being able to travel to the countries where these languages are spoken at the end of twelve months of learning – to see what I can accomplish.
A new language is like a hobby multiplied. Where you can knit and create a sweater, or play tennis and win a trophy, a new language gives you the potential to create, to win a new you.
So for the language learner, I am calling this “Running away, at home.” You get your dose of exotica, of excitement, of wanderlust; but you sleep in your own bed.
I would be interested in the feedback of readers. Is this what you enjoy about speaking another language? Is this a goal in learning a new language? Let me (us) know.