You Never Know Where Your Languages Will Take You


It’s been a while since I have posted anything here since running a business tends to consume all of my time, sometimes to a nearly unhealthy degree. The gap since my last post has made me consider where my languages have taken me compared to where I thought I was going when I started out. To give you some background, I have had a near obsession with languages since I was fairly young, studying any language I could get materials for. This unguided, haphazard approach to learning languages became much more structured when I went to college and limited myself to my “major” languages: Russian, Spanish and French. I chose these three intentionally thinking I might end up working for the United Nations whose working languages include English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

Yet it was Russian that really held my attention. The mystique of the language and country during the cold war was very intriguing to me. I even spent six months in the Soviet Union studying and perfecting my Russian. I remember how excited I was the day I realized I could speak Russian easily without even thinking of the grammar. I left the country feeling very proud of my ability to speak confidently, fluently and intelligently on most topics, assuming I’d be back in Moscow very soon after I graduated. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 job opportunities were not the same and I ended up in graduate school studying Russian and Spanish.

After graduating, my professional life quickly led me to a job at an insurance company translating from Spanish and Portuguese, languages which I had secretly looked down on as “back-up” languages that were not as prestigious or fascinating as Russian. Now I found myself suddenly needing to use them both at a professional level. I began devouring Spanish content, memorizing obscure Spanish grammar rules and making long vocabulary lists to be sure that I could do the job well. Since I only had three semesters of college Portuguese under my belt, whenever I had “extra” time, I’d spend it working on Portuguese grammar and vocabulary, principally relying on words and grammar that were different from Spanish. Within a reasonable period of time, I felt comfortable using and speaking in both languages at work.

Yet after four years in the insurance industry, I was ready for a change. I started a language services company with my partner in 1997. It quickly became very clear just how useful and indispensible Spanish actually is in the United States. Soon after a very large client required me to put my atrophying French skills to the test. I went through the same process to ramp up my French. It’s been 20 years since that time and I still use French and Spanish on a daily basis, and Portuguese a few times a week. Yet Russian has never played a large part of my professional life in all of that time. Over the years, I can sense my Russian skills deteriorating, despite occasional bursts of interest in reading and listening to the language on the web. When I do have opportunities to speak Russian, the words are no longer on the tip of my tongue and I can feel myself having to think about verb forms and noun declensions that once came out naturally. To a large degree, we make our own opportunities in life so I am not ruling out ever using Russian on a professional level. However, for now I am enjoying using languages that I feel completely comfortable in and studying other languages for fun when I can. It can be hard to know where your language will take you right out of college so stay open to all possibilities and do your best to keep your skills up in languages that you aren’t actively using.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

Serbo-Croatian language flag

Image via Wikipedia

As a linguistics major in college I remember being taught that the question of what is a language versus a dialect is a political question rather than a linguistic one. This is indeed the case. Languages are held in high esteem by their speakers. Dialects are deemed to be less prestigious than the main language. Confusion between the terms arises from the fact that there is no clear distinction into what makes a language a language, or a dialect a dialect. For many American English speakers, regional accents are often considered to be dialects of English. For example, Southern speech is frequently referred to as “dialect” in just the same way as one would refer to British English. From a broader and politically-neutral perspective, a dialect can be considered to be any form of a language that is mutually intelligible to speakers of the same or related language. Therefore, American, British and Australian English would all be dialects of each other since the speakers of these three variations of English can essentially understand each other, apart from localized slang and expressions that often stump the listener.

However, the picture becomes a bit murkier as you consider closely-related languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. To varying degrees these three Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible to speakers of the other languages. Political boundaries have defined them as separate languages and different orthographic rules have further modified their written forms.  Often in such cases speakers of one of the languages have much less difficulty understanding the other language. In fact, I used to teach English as a Second Language and would regularly hear Spanish and Portuguese speakers conversely with each other in their own language after class. The Brazilian Portuguese speakers told me that they had no problem whatsoever understanding the Spanish speakers, but the Spanish speakers often struggled to understand the Brazilians.

For political reasons, sometimes languages that are mutually unintelligible are considered to be the same language, as is the case with Chinese. China considers Cantonese and Mandarin to be the same language. In fact, these two languages do share the same writing system and use the same characters, but the spoken form of the languages is so different that the speakers are unable to understand each other without writing back and forth. In other cases, the exact same language is considered to be a separate language. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are essentially the same language, called Serbo-Croatian during communist rule. Now for political reasons they are considered distinct languages. Serbian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Croatian in the Latin alphabet and Bosnian in both. As languages and countries continue to evolve, what we now consider to be dialects may become languages or vice versa.