Becoming Multilingual

This week, I’m working frantically to get my application finished for this summer language program I want to get into, so I am incapable of thinking about anything other than this. As such, I thought I’d write about language. We all love language, right? Okay then.

Provided I get into this program, I’ll be spending my summer studying Arabic. This will be the third foreign language I’ve studied (the other two being Spanish and Italian), and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve probably been fascinated by words my entire life, but I became especially fascinated when I was in 10th grade English and the class did a unit on the history of the language. Learning that English is an Indo-European language and therefore has things in common with Hindi was a revelation to me. (Trivia: the English word “igneous” which describes rock formed from magma is similar to the name for the Hindu fire god, Agni.)

The thing about learning a new language is that it makes it impossible not to learn something about your own. In both of my previous language-study experiences, I learned so much — not just how to order dinner or ask for directions or read a newspaper, but how a language is structured. Sure, just like most people, I learned the parts of speech and how to diagram sentences when I was a kid in school, but these things never became practical, living ideas for me until I had to apply them something completely foreign. (Italian prepositions? Confusing and seemingly illogical.) A language is more than a series of words to describe things; it’s a culture, a way of understanding the world. And for me, at least, understanding that about other languages has helped me understand that about my own.

I have a thing for English. It was always my favorite subject in school, then I went on to major in it in college, and maybe someday I’ll end up teaching it. I love literature, of course — it’s magic, creating things from words, isn’t it? — but I love the fundamentals, too. I love the way the language works. The weird way we conjugate verbs. The morphemes that are the building blocks of our words. The syntax. The semantics. I really really love language, and most people who know me have been treated to me geeking out about it at one time or another. Words! Words are the greatest things of all.

Of course this love translates into writing. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t love words like I do. But I also like talking and listening, the way things sound, the way it feels to say certain words (it’s not a fancy one, but I have adored the word “zipper” all my life).

Perhaps this is a silly question to ask a bunch of people who read a literary website, but how much do you love words? What are some of your favorites? What do you love about language (and do you speak more than one)?

12 Responses

  1. And The Name of This Post Is
    And The Name of This Post Is Kevin

    First of all, let me say — Wurds R Good, however I’m not sure that this message is really about becoming multilingual but rather being lingual. Linguica! Which is, by the way, Portuguese. How much do I love words? Let me count the ways … well I mean they’re alright, even though they can fail me at times, I suppose they’re always around when you need them and they never forget to call you the next day. Most words are pretty neat and have good jobs and take care of their mothers, but sometimes people use them in the most awful ways. I suspect that makes words sad. This is probably why they get twisted and change meanings. I also suspect sentences don’t like being diagrammed any more than frogs like being dissected, but that’s another post. Let’s see … how much do I love words? Well I love them enough not to leave them, because really, words are all we’ve got. Maybe that’s settling, but what can you do? That said, I don’t love them nearly as much as I love Pringles, Neil Diamond or The Office. Because, really, words? You make me do most of the work, putting you together and adding context. With Pringles, it’s just sit back and enjoy…

    My two favorite words would have to be “shut” and “up”. So much can be done with so little and I really dig that. It’s like the MacGuyver of language arts.

    As an unrelated aside, Jamelah, I have to ask, as someone who I know loves Adrienne Rich … does part of your love of words and language stem from the fact that they are deceptive, challenging and often abused? In other words (ahem), do you love them because they’re bad boys?

  2. Kevin is a really good post.I
    Kevin is a really good post.

    I also love the words “shut” and “up” especially put together. And when there’s a “just” in the front? That’s pure poetry.

    As for your unrelated aside… yes. You know me, always smoking under the bleachers with kids like Tumultuous and Haphazard. I remember when I first read Adrienne Rich’s line, “A conversation begins with a lie” and how that opened up a whole world of thinking about how language is ultimately useless, yet at the same time, everything.

    Except Pringles. You’re so right about the Pringles.

  3. You should teach in a
    You should teach in a college

    Jamelah, I seriously think you should become a college professor. You are great at this word & language business.

    Ho detto che esso prima ed io lo diranno ancora: Siete, the bomb, come la parola, usata nello slang.

    I love words but I’m lazy when it comes to foreign languages. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because of an unconscious choice to learn only what immediately affects me. I have thought about learning German lately. The reason I’m attracted to German is three-fold.

    1. I’ve always been fascinated by German expressionistic filmmakers like Fritz Lang (Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse, M), Robert Weine (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu).

    2. As I have mentioned before, a very cool artist from Hamburg, Germany named Erni Bar has translated my book into German.

    3. There always seemed to be something hip, exciting, and maybe decadent about Germany, as when the Beatles, as very young men, left their homes and parents in Liverpool, England and went to Hamburg to expand their horizons.

    On one hand the 1920s and 1930s of Berlin had the notorious cabaret night-life, on the other hand, people like Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky, and Walter Gropius made Berlin an intellectual and cultural nucleus.

  4. Firecracker, that was
    Firecracker, that was cleverly metaphorical and I think it should be blogged all around.

  5. which program??Are you by any
    which program??

    Are you by any chance applying to the critical languages scholarship? ‘Cause I just finished applying for the Arabic program there, which will be in Egypt or Tunisia…!

    I completely share your devotion to words, whether English or “foreign.” I speak Spanish and French, and think it would be pretty incredible to take a shot at Arabic…
    I’m in the process of finishing up an undergrad thesis right now on surrealist poetry, and it’s made me realize how much time I’m willing to devote to being consumed by language….as much as I complain, I do quite love doing it…

    Anyway…in 5th grade, my best friend and I shared a favorite word: befuddle.

    One of my favorite Spanish words is “izquierda” — wonderfully odd! It’s actually derived from the Basque language, which I’ve been told is completely unrelated to any other language in the world…

  6. Hi. I’m applying tot he
    Hi. I’m applying tot he University of Michigan’s Summer Language Institute. I’ve always wanted to learn Arabic, so I thought I’d give it a shot for the summer.

    “Izquierda” is a great word.

  7. words and languageif someone
    words and language

    if someone can’t stop smartassbabbling to people on television, telling them how to express themselves more eloquently, and keeps mumbling spoonerisms of every spoken sentence to herself during boring conversationsor meetings, does that mean that someone is obsessed with langauge?
    if it does, then i am.

    i love words. i find a great aesthetic in them, a power, and an endless potentiality.

    you can use them, play with them, create them. they are endlessly versatile in their nature and function, they can be vehicle or load, local train or express connection, engineer or conductor, tracks, switch, or barricade.

    you can sing them! fling them! turn them upside down and inside out! you can make them dictators, rebels or slaves, and they can make you rulers, revolutionaries, or hanger-ons.

    they are as alive as we are if we let them into our lives. words are us. words pulse with our own pulse.

    i also love language. it’s the system of words by which means we are able to communicate. it’s a pattern of codes and symbols, it’s rules and free expression combined into a unique form of transporting messages.
    it’s tool, communication and thought, it’s mythos, idea and transcendency. it’s culture, agreement, and information, structure, logic and construct, emotion, artform and platform for creativity. it’s organized and arbitrary at the same time, a fixed structure inhering the option for total freedom. it’s a system of rules that can manipulate its own symbols, it’s chat and change, chance and challenge.

    yes, i am fascinated by language, both by the concept per se, and by its different forms, the various kinds of tongues.

    i only speak two languages, german and english, which i consider a poverty, as i am sure a wider, broader knowledge of langauages and their potentialities would enrich my understanding of this way of human interaction and expression enormously. i have an idea of french, hebrew, dutch, and italian, which does help, but this knowledge is limited to the understanding of very simple (written) texts, so i am missing large aspects here, as i cannot really express myself in these languages, and therefore, cannot play with the liberty and potentiality inherent in them.

    i’ve learned latin in school, which is a great basis for a general understanding of the structur and construct of a language (plus, it helps making sense of any roman language). to recognize the rules and pattern behind a system helps getting along within it and dealing with it, and is an inevitable basis for a conscious experimenting with it. learning latin is like learning about the meaning of the musical notes before you can begin to play an instrument, and then, later on, let go off the symbols and improvise freely. you don’t necessarily need latin, or the knowledge of the notes, to become a master of your language, or to become a great musician, but under certain circumstances, or depending on your ambitions, it can certainly help.

    i love language because it connects people. i love language becasue it’s an artform. i love language, because it can make a change.

    what else? maybe i also love langauge because i cannot stop talking about it…..

  8. Wordskinda scare me.We have a

    kinda scare me.
    We have a love/hate relationhip. Sometimes words work for me, sometimes they leave me beffudled,my brain feeling like cottonmouth.
    I know hindi,bengali,assamase,nepali and english.
    I studied French in college but never went to a single class except for the final exam where i wrote poems and a recepie for making some kind of cake that i had riped out from a French magazine.
    I think im going to learn latin/Hebrew to fulfill my college requirement.
    All languages are definetely connected and language is connected to all knowledge because thats the syntax through which information has been passed down to us.

    At the moment my favourite word is oye!!

  9. words are oksept for them not
    words are ok

    sept for them not usually sounding like how you really talk.

    shame bout language is that in this day and age, it’s kinda boring learning how people speak in places you have already (or secretly want to) conquered, who’s women you’ve already raped and impregnated. better off the foreigners speak english anyway, makes it much easier to spread the anglo-scots protestant frame of mind – and subsequently keep it strong…

    that said, i am flirtin with the concept of spanish. some empire or other is surely round the next corner with a bat and a ball

    i suppose it IS better to know whether someone’s offering to buy you a drink or tellin you they fancy shootin you in the face. in fact this cultural diversity thing seems like the far more potentially lucrative tactic. all the profit we’ve wasted in these last couple thousand years!!

  10. ok, bill, here’s a first
    ok, bill, here’s a first german lesson for you —
    i am giving you the translation for the word “the”:

    it is “der”, “die”, “das”, “dem”, “den”, or “des”, according to context.

    if you still want to learn german, let me know. i’ll be happy to be of any help…

  11. Now, if you could explain why
    Now, if you could explain why the German language has so many versions of the word “the” (der, die, das, dem, den, or des), I would be much obliged.

  12. well, bill, the article
    well, bill, the article changes according to gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), numerus (grammatical number: singular or plural) and declension (nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive case– only four cases in german, whereas hungarian, for example, has eighteen).


    “the brown dog” in english is “der braune hund” in german, if the dog is male.

    the brown dog is nice (the brown dog being the sentence’s subject, and therefore nominative case) —> der braune hund ist nett.

    i like the brown dog (the brown dog being the sentence’s accusative object) —> ich mag den braunen hund (note: the adjective also changes!).

    i give the brown dog the sausage (the male brown dog being the sentence’s dative object, the female sausage being the sentence’s accusative object) –> ich gebe dem braunen hund die wurst.

    this is the brown dog’s stick (the brown dog being the sentence’s genitive object, which you call possessive case, i think) —> das ist der stock des braunen hundes (note: not only article, but also adjective and noun change!).

    …. now i could continue this with a female dog, and with several dogs, but i think this is enough for lesson no. 1.

    oh, and by the way: the colour brown is just “braun”, if it’s not inflected.

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