Wednesday, December 15, 2010

now we're talking

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with NPR because I’m always starting sentences with ‘I heard the funniest thing on NPR’. We have a fabulous local station here in Seattle, KUOW, and the midday program ‘The Conversation’ is one of my daily routines. They cover everything from the neuroscience of sexuality to proposed parking taxes to the spawning habits of Sockeye salmon. I love it. I tune in not thinking I’d ever be interested in listening to the obligatory crazy lady from Freemont talk about how the new backyard chicken ordinance is going to affect her and before I know it I’m riveted.

Anyway, yesterday they were discussing a topic that I always know will interest me: the study of foreign languages. (You can listen here if you’re interested). They were talking about learning practical second languages like Chinese and less practical more lifestyle-oriented languages like Italian (but who learns Italian for the hell of it? Oh right). And this all got me thinking about why I put #6 on the list: learn Spanish.

I do know a tiny bit of Spanish that I learned at college but I’ve always wanted to learn more, mostly because it’s beautiful and actually far more practical than the only other language I speak (French) but also because so many of the countries I’ve visited that I really love and want to visit in the future speak it.

As I’ve mentioned before I spent a semester in France as a student. It was just enough time to really get a hold on the language. I remember vividly how it felt when I first began to really understand and speak French, when I began to think in the language instead of translating word-for-word in my head; it was like the whole place suddenly came into focus. And without my normal vocabulary to rely on, I found I interacted differently with people; I wasn’t always rushing to get out my next thought—it forced me to be a little more thoughtful and probably a little more attentive as a listener.

You can understand a culture much better once you begin to notice the nuances of their language. For instance in French the expression je t’aime can mean both ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’. Now, in the U.S. the first time a person says ‘I love you’ in a romantic relationship is a seminal moment. Can you even imagine us not distinguishing between the two emotions of ‘like’ and ‘love’? This tells you something about the difference between the way Americans and French people view love and romance.   

You understand the world differently when you hear it in another language, especially when you can talk back.

What language would you like to learn?   


  1. It's a shame that I didn't keep up with my Spanish. I was semi-fluent after spending 6 months in Spain. I really don't want to learn a new language - I just want to be confident in Spanish again!

  2. "when i began to think in a language, not translate"

    i so long for that feeling. i started studying French too late in high school to be bothered by it and then only took what i had to take in college to get necessary credits to graduate. not living in a foreign country and learning how to think French (or italian, or spanish, or portuguese) is one of those things i would have made more of a priority when i was younger. now i have to wait til my kids are older, but i'll get there.

    i love NPR too (shocker, right?) jian ghomeshi is my new favorite crush and i don't even know what he looks like.

  3. As you may (read: definitely) already know, NPR is one of my favorite things in the whole world. While there isn't a language I'm desperate to learn, I will tell you that a friend of mine's husband spends much of his free time hard at work learning Italian so he can speak with her in her native language. Even though she speaks perfect English. Isn't that maybe just the most romantical thing ever?

  4. Spanish for me, too. I absolutely adore the Mexican culture – the women are so warm, so family-oriented and loving. They're in my city and I want to know them.

  5. Some philosophers of language think all language is essentially gibberish, and that meaning is created through intention and understanding. This is one explanation of the like/love quandary. Check out George Reyes if you are interested!