How bad are you at languages? The first step on the path of ecolinguism

What beauties will you find once you enter the language ecosystem?
What beauties will you find once you enter the language ecosystem?

I have a friend who loves mushroom gathering. He takes his kids to the woods and everyone looks for mushrooms, and when they find them, they put them in the basket. After and hour or two, they go back to the car, and in the grass they dump out all the mushrooms and sort them into different varieties. With a field guide, he looks up each variety, sorting the piles into edible, inedible, and unknown. Gathering up the first pile, he puts them back in the basket and takes his family home to enjoy the harvest.

So how does he make sure not to poison his family?

He’s no expert, but he has a field guide and mushroom-hunting friends. He uses his guide to pick out the useful mushrooms and errs on the side of caution. He may bring some of the questionable ones to ask his friends about. Even when collecting goes badly and nothing is edible, he and his family learn about the life of the forest ecosystem: what mushrooms grow where, how living things decompose, and how the forest changes in subtle ways from month to month. After a few years, he picks out some edible ones with confidence.

What languages do you know…badly?

Any polyglot or anyone with learning languages as a hobby will have received this question. I usually start with my best and move down the list to the worst, usually trailing off into the ones for which I barely remember a word.

But why not start with the ones I know badly? I know a few words in so many languages: Amharic, Modern Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Farsi, to name a few. Is that less important?

If I want to know about the language ecosystem around me, I don’t have to be an expert. I only have to enter into that forest. Even if I only have a guidebook, I can start observing, collecting, and sorting—tasting only what I’m sure about. If I don’t learn any new words, I can always enjoy the speakers around me

Someone told me the story of an event that convinced her that she was bad at languages. She had been learning French in high school. She went to Montreal and ordered a pastry in French. The person responded in plain old French—way faster than she could understand anything. She was ashamed and humiliated—never to return to speaking a foreign language.

She’s not bad at languages; she’s a novice, still learning about what works and what doesn’t.

Enjoy what you know

The secret is to rejoice in what you know, not scare yourself by what you don’t know. I knew a guy in Kiev who literally knew one word of English: “Yes.” He would use it every chance he could with me, and was happy when I reacted. Good for him!

You can learn mushrooms by gathering them and looking them up. You can learn a language by gathering a few words and tasting the ones you trust.

When I leave the parking garage at work, I always greet the attendants in Amharic. They know me by now, and they try to teach me something new to say—though I never remember it by the next time.

I will be going to Greece soon. I will trot out my 20 year-old, never-really-ever-good Modern Greek. “Where is the…uh…big [follow my finger as I trace it in the air for you]?” is a good one. Another is, “I don’t know. I know very little Greek.”

Guess what? That is how I started every language I learned.

I speak Russian fluently and have worked as an interpreter. Yet it has not always been so.

In my second year of learning the language, I ran into some Russians in a touristy part of Colorado. (This was in the late 80s, so these were the first Russians I had ever seen in person.) I managed to say hello and my name. I couldn’t really say much else, so taking pity on my, this man just had me review the days of the week with him (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…). Just like my friend’s mushrooms, he and I looked over what I had gathered, selected what we knew was safe, and enjoyed.

What language do you know badly? Get it out. Dust it off. Speaking badly is the first step to speaking well. If you don’t enter the forest, you are guaranteed not to get sick from mushrooms. If you get in and search, though, you will likely find a few tasty ones. If you don’t find any good ones, you will have experienced a great time in the forest, nevertheless.

Have you had any recent experiences with your “bad” languages? How did it go?

Photo credit: ninfaj / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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13 thoughts on “How bad are you at languages? The first step on the path of ecolinguism

  1. First of all, when you go to the forest looking for mushrooms, you shouldn’t pick the mushrooms you don’t know if they are edible. You should collect only those you know you may eat, and collecting mushrooms you shall use care by living the roots inside the ground… But I got the relation of the metaphor between language and collecting.
    A language need to be practiced, very often at least, if not every day…
    To learn a new idiom you need better to be in the land where the language is spoken, this is the finest way to learn it well and easily.
    A child (from 2 up to 16 yrs.) is very advantaged since the brain isn’t full with a lot of “heavy informations” which make difficult the learning.
    As for me, you see right now, english isn’t my strong one, but I hold on with practising as much as I can.
    Serenity :-)c

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    1. Thank you! You’re right, we should be respectful not to pull up mushrooms we don’t intend to do anything with.

      Of course, you want to be in a niche where a language is spoken to learn the language. But you don’t necessarily need to be in the country. I could live in different neighborhoods in my city and spend most of my time speaking Chinese or Somali. If I spent a longer time in Miami, my Spanish would be wonderful 🙂

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  2. My usual “bad language” I usually trot out is Korean. A few lessons with my family when I was 11-12, the first language I actually tried to learn, a short trip to Korea, and I have a couple of token sentences and can read the alphabet. Of all my “bad languages”, that’s the one I’m exposed to the most – most major Adelaide cities have sizeable Korean populations now, and Adelaide is no exception, so I’m coming across Koreans everyday. I love the reactions when I come out with a simple “kumsumnida” (thank-you)!

    For other bad languages, I have to delve into the painful memories of primary school language lessons. Indonesian and Italian. All I can do in either is count to ten (and order a lemon gelatio in Italian). Like most primary school languages, my schools had reasons for picking those ones. Indonesia is our closest neighbour, but I’ve never spoken it with anyone. My family’s not the sort to go on cheep holidays to Bali. Italian… well, in my neighbourhood when I was a child, I heard Italian at the shops, in the chemist, from other pupils’ parents at school, on the street… It’s being replaced by Korean in that area now, but you can still hear Italian around the place – the Consulate is just up the road from where I grew up. I haven’t spoken Italian in a while – I think because of the way it was forced on my in some truly horrendous lessons in primary school, I just don’t like the language. If I ever need to speak to an Italian who doesn’t speak English, I can usually get by with my (admittedly poor) Spanish.

    Recently I’ve been really wanting to learn Kaurna, the local language of my area (actually, technically I live in Peramangk country, but there is no record of the Peramangk language at all). The more I think about it, the more appalling it seems that I’ve lived for almost 20 years in Kaurna country and know barely three words of the language. But I can recognise my limitations and I’m flat out with the Greek and Hebrew at the moment (which is particularly frustrating, because not only is it rote grammar, but I can’t string a sentence together barely at all. It’s all reading, no speaking). I’ve wanted to learn Russian for the last few years and it’s never happened, but with all you’ve being saying about eco-linguism recently, Russian seems a bit of a poor choice for my area!

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  3. Turkish might be useful in my part of the town, Romanian, Bulgarian and even Romanes/Romani. But I should be brushing up my French (that’s one of my bad languages), and I really, really want to try Occitan. The last year has been really busy, but perhaps this summer…

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    1. I think being able to talk to one’s neighbors is great. I think that you could have some fun learning some Romanian and Bulgarian–even Romani. Even if just a few words. I bet there would be a lot of Romanians who would enjoy practicing French with you, too. I’ve noticed a lot of Romanians know French.

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  5. I know about 3 to 4 languages. I can speak fluently in my mother tongue ,Mandarin. I have been learning English since i was just a kindergarten child. I think my writing skill is much better than speaking though. English speaking is really a daunting task for me.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! Perfecting English is tough, but never be ashamed for not being “good enough” at it. Add more languages, even if you’re bad at them. The more you work at languages the better you’ll be.

      Keep at it! So far so good. Your comment is easy enough to read, so your English can’t be so bad.

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      1. Oh! Thanks for replying me. This is my very first time to get someone’s reply. It’s really out of my expectation haha. Anyway, I am still learning and trying to perfect those languages. It’s still a long way to go. The efforts are bitter but the fruits will surely be sweet.

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  6. Pingback: Learning sympathy on my linguistic journey – Loving Language

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