Sunday, April 21, 2024


Learning New Languages

Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), Explorations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 93-94:
Friends sometimes ask me why I like learning new languages. I always feel like asking them why they do not like learning new languages, but I never do. For one thing, it would be too much like asking a tone-deaf man why he does not care for Debussy. For another, I know that many of them are actually afraid, and it would be embarrassing to expose their fear. They are timid about sounding like fools or small children while they are learning, and they are reluctant to remold their thinking and their habits of speech. I sympathize with this. Every human being has some inhibitions about learning certain new activities: skiing or dancing, diving or acting, public speaking or private thinking, all repel some of us. Then again, some people of a conservative bent believe subconsciously that there is only one language, their own; and that all others are silly monkey-talk not worth learning. They will not make the effort, any more than they would learn to bark and mew because they had a dog and a cat. This reluctance often appears when two language-groups live together on unsympathetic terms. Not many Peruvians of Spanish descent learn Quechua, the language of the conquered. Not many Englishmen learn Welsh: it was a special diplomatic effort for the present Prince of Wales to master the tongue of his princedom. Not many Jews in old Poland could speak Polish, and very few Poles knew Yiddish. I remember a British officer in Germany who, after some persuasion, though sticking in his big hooves and laying back his long hairy ears, started to learn German. When he was told that Please and Thank you were Bitte schön and Danke schön, he asked exactly what the phrases meant. 'What! what!' he grumbled when he heard. 'Pretty please and Pretty thanks? Silly bloody language, I'm damned if I learn another word of it!'

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