So Many Languages…

I feel like my last post was pretty heavy.  It would be nice to balance it out with some humor, but instead I am going to write about something that almost no one will care about except me: foreign languages!  Anyone reading this can remind themselves that it is perfectly OK not to care about this topic (if such a reminder is even necessary) and go on to something else.

Anyone who knows more than a little bit about me will know that I am obsessed with foreign languages.  I have been since high school, when I became friends with Spanish and made acquaintances of languages like Portuguese, French, German and even Thai.  Well, I can’t say I really made an acquaintance of Thai.  It was more of a casual nod as we passed in the hall.

Nevertheless, I love them all.  I have never met a language I didn’t like.  They have everything I’m looking for intellectually. I love puzzles, systems, patterns and codes.  Languages are full of those.  I also love different people and cultures and feeling included.  Learning a language makes me feel closer to the people who speak it, gives me a window into their culture and makes me feel like less of an outsider.  It’s an amazing feeling.

When I learn even a small amount of a language, two major parts of my brain go into something of a fireworks mode.  Ok, they’re not like the big fireworks on the Fourth of July.  They’re more like sparkling candles on a birthday cake, accompanied by warm, friendly music, but it is still quite pleasant.  To get the mental equivalent of the booms, sparks and patriotic music I enjoy so much on the Fourth, I have to really learn a language.  I’m generally happy with the daily equivalent of birthday candles and comforting music.

To be truthful, though, I don’t actually study languages.  Studying a language involves memorizing, lots of memorizing.  If memorizing is boring to you, I can assure you it is equally boring to me.  Since I am learning languages for fun and entertainment, I skip the repetitive self-talk (“Kitchen. Cocina. Kitchen. Cocina. Baño. Bathroom. Baño. Bathroom. Kitchen. Cocina. Baño. Bathroom.”—just writing that drives me nuts!).  So I just read the languages.  I’ll explain how that works in a bit.

I happen to have a religion that makes it very, very easy to do this.  I am Mormon, meaning I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Almost everyone knows a couple of basic facts about Mormons.  First, we believe in the Book of Mormon.  Second, we send missionaries everywhere.  I myself was a missionary in Uruguay many years ago (or so it seems).

The combination of these two facts is what makes being Mormon so wonderful for someone who loves languages.  The Book of Mormon has been translated into about 120 different languages.  Happily, all of them are available for $3.00.  You can order them online, and the shipping is free (!).  It’s a cheap thing to collect.  Even better, with the digital age you can get about 34 translations in a single app.  You can also download the Book of Mormon in pdf format in almost all of those 34 languages plus about 50 more.  For many reasons, the digital age is a language-lover’s dream come true.

I had started reading the Book of Mormon before when I was in my late teens and early twenties, beginning with languages I could understand or that were fairly familiar: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German.  It was easy to simply compare them with the English and studying the grammar of the languages made it even easier.  When I started in on Russian, it was more difficult.  I was completely lost and had a hard time figuring out what each word meant.

Then I sampled a few languages that were difficult to study, like Tongan, Welsh or Amharic.  There just isn’t much available for languages like those.  In the process, I learned some basic strategies for decoding a new language.  I learned how to find phrases, sentences and verses that contained the same word in English and hunt for the word that was repeated in the translation.  I also learned that once you can identify the verbs in a sentence, things start falling into place.

Some languages mark verbs by placing them at the end of the phrase.  Some mark them with a particular set of prefixes and/or suffixes.  Almost every language I’ve encountered marks them fairly clearly in some way or another.

The next important thing to do is to identify the nouns.  That’s similar to identifying verbs, with similar clues (word order and suffixes).  Then you figure out whether the adjectives go before the noun or after the noun, or both.  Along the way, you generally manage to identify little words like prepositions and pronouns.  They are very common and are limited in number, so this doesn’t actually take much of an effort.   Adverbs aren’t as common, but you can always tell what they are because they stick close to the verb and aren’t nouns or little words.

Once you can identify which words are verbs, which are nouns, which are adjectives or adverbs and which are little words, you’re all set.  You can compare the translation with the English and get a pretty good idea of which word or words in the translation match a concept in English.  All it takes is enough interest and desire to actually do it.

After I had done this once or twice, I was hooked.  Languages became my favorite puzzle.  Forget crosswords or Sudoku.  Figuring out what means what in Welsh or Amharic was much more interesting to me.

Years ago, I could stick with a language until I’d finished the Book of Mormon, even if it took me two or three years, as Russian did.  For reference, the Book of Mormon has 532 pages in English.  Even though some pages have copious footnotes, it takes some time to read the book in an unfamiliar language.

First, I gave up on Armenian after about 100 English pages.  Then I dropped Chinese after about 50 English pages.  (To be fair, it took me a year or more to get that far).  Over the years my attention span for a language dropped to the point that I couldn’t read the same one for more than a couple of months before I wanted to go on to another one.

At the time, my collection of Books of Mormon was limited by shelf space.  Then, just as my attention span hit bottom, all those copies became available for me to carry around on my Kindle Fire.  So of course I decided to read them all.  I didn’t want to neglect any of them.

I decided to just stick with the first chapter.  Now, after almost two years, I have read the first chapter of the Book of Mormon in about 80 languages.  It was a lot easier to do this once I had memorized it that first chapter (20 verses).

One hiccup in my quest to read every Book of Mormon translation is that I have only learned a handful of non-Latin writing systems and I’m not in the mood to learn any more at the moment (too much memorizing).  Luckily most languages are written in Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic.  Still, I am guiltily neglecting some great languages: Korean, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and Bengali, all of which I have on hand, and Telugu, which I don’t even own (horrors!).  Sorry, guys.  I promise I will get to you someday.

Having worked through the first chapter in all the languages I have that I can actually read, I’m now working on the second chapter.  I’ve got it memorized, too.  Of course, when I get back to many of the languages I find that I remember so little that it’s almost like seeing it for the first time.  I have to go back and re-read the first chapter before I can tackle the second.  Luckily, it goes a lot quicker the second time around.

Since I started, the church has published new translations in Bengali, Slovak and Malaysian.  I greet each announcement of a new translation with about the same excitement an old Star Wars fan feels about a new Star Wars movie (I should know).  If I had time, I would study every language spoken today.  Then, when I finished that, I would study every dead language that’s ever been written down.  When I finished that…I would cry.  Happily, there are a couple of thousand languages around, so I think I’m pretty safe.