At this point in time, right now, I can only speak one language – English. I am a university graduate (of the era just before emailing was big, mobile phones and the new language of SMS – geez, that made me feel old) with too many degrees, but I still don’t have a firm grasp of the english language. So how is it that so many people around the world can and do fluently speak multiple languages? Why should I?
In high school I tried my hand (or ear as the case may be) at German and Japanese with little success – well maybe that depends on how you look at it. I can still say “there is the dog” incorrectly in German! I have also travelled to most of the continents and can say hello to maybe half the world’s population in a language they understand (no, not english), though this is often after several attempts at getting the wrong language lodged in my brain first (which is common if I am visiting several different cultures in a short time period).
Now I am living in Ethiopia, which incidentally I am told has about 85 different ethnic groups which equates to a similar number of dialects and languages. So I chose the ‘national’ language to learn, so that at least a third of the population might be able to understand what I am saying while frantically waving my intentions and understanding (or possibly misunderstanding).
The language is Amharic and the script is Ge’ez. Geez, I can only make out the second most commonly recognised symbols in the world – Coca Cola, and that is only because it is aided by the colours and symbols! So I have opted out of learning another script, at least for the time being and until I get my head around the grammar… Argh, grammar! I have never met many people who actually like to work on grammar! I have found myself over thinking the structure of a sentence and I never thought it possible that I would ever be required to think backwards (to English that is!).
So it is with much eye rolling (trying to find the right word lodged somewhere in my seemingly faulty brain filing cabinet) and hand gesturing (hoping that this will suffice rather than having to dig further into the filing cabinets for the answer that has been lost on the wind) that I am attempting to learn another language.
The ability to speak more than one language comes from necessity. If you want to be able to trade with your near neighbours or understand their gossip then you need to be able to speak to them – and my hand waving and gesturing is just not going to cut it! I also think that practice is a key to successfully learning a foreign language.
So, why should I learn another language? Together with giving the locals a good giggle (I have found the best use for learning or mis-learning a language is to make the locals laugh – this to date has been my greatest success in the foreign language field!), I also want to get to know the people a bit better. Even though I can only ask ‘What did you have for lunch?’ and hope they don’t answer in words I have not learnt yet, I am starting to let the locals know that yes, I am still a foreigner but I am not as much of an ignorant one now. I can show them I am making an effort and hopefully this counts as a discount on the already inflated ‘foreigners’ price.
Here’s to a 30 cent coke…