One thing I admire most in this world is the ability to be multilingual. Obviously I am a native English speaker, who speaks a dialect from the region of south Alabama. Most people would associate my accent/dialect with that of the Southeastern United States, but many southerners can tell certain distinctions in pronunciations and regions. People have always told me that I have a nice southern accent. It was interesting to me when I was up north for my recent interview to talk to my very cute and sexy taxi driver, because he made a very interesting remark. He asked me where I was from, and I said Alabama. He said, “I knew you weren’t from here because you pronounce your words so clearly.” I told him I don’t think a southerner has ever been told they speak more clearly than anyone else. We tend to be told that we drop certain consonants and even syllables or add extra vowels. It’s nice to know I speak clearly and am easy to understand especially since that would be a major component of my job up there.
However, back to being multilingual, I can speak a little Spanish and very little Italian and French, the last two just enough to say I don’t speak the language and to order food. With Spanish I am able to read the language to a certain extent though I need a dictionary for more than just a summary translation. I’m sure with Spanish, I probably could with a lot of work and usage be able to speak it functionally but I rarely use it. The same might be true of Italian because it is very similar, but I always had a major problem with learning French. However, if I am around someone speaking any of these three languages enough, I can get a basic understanding of what is being said, though not a word for word translation nor can I effectively respond in that language.
Languages and linguistics have always fascinated me. When I studied African history, I was always interested in how historians used linguistics to determine migration patterns, especially of the Bantu people.. The same is true with Native American history, such as how the Iroquois of New York and Canada have a similar language to the Cherokee of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. Similar enough in fact that the Tuscarora broke from the Cherokee and became part of the Iroquois. No one really knows how the two can have such a similar language but be geographically disconnected from each other, but they both belong to the Algonquin language family while the Native Americans surrounding the Cherokee belong largely to the Muskogean language family.
I would love to have the intelligence to be able to study linguistics. The origins of language, historical linguistics, and anthropological linguistics fascinate me, but I have never been able to catch on to different languages. Some people have the unique ability to easily pick up languages and young children have a remarkable ability to absorb different languages more easily, but as we get older our brains can no longer do so as easily. I have always found it sad that Americans are so xenophobic to languages other than English. More than half of the United States was once Spanish speaking, a fourth was French speaking, and all of it was made up of thousands of different languages before Europeans arrived, but the eastern seaboard and the English colonies that became the United States came to dominate and require English as the only language, even though the United States has no official language.
English speaking Americans, and this time I do include Canadians, forced assimilation on non-English speakers to learn the English language. The Canadians failed with Quebec, and French and English became the official languages of Canada, but the United States was largely successful (except in Louisiana which has retained French, Cajun, and English), though English is still most widely spoken This assimilation campaign led to the extinction of many Native languages and the loss of immigrants retaining their language but not until the languages of non-English speakers influenced and infiltrated American English enough to make it a very distinct dialect from that of British English.
Many countries require that children from the time they begin school to learn a second language. In many countries that second language is English because English has become the lingua franca of business around the globe. Americans use this as an excuse to not require students to be bilingual, which I find a shame and a disgrace to the American education system. There is no reason that we cannot begin in preschool or kindergarten teaching students a second language, when they are still young enough to learn another language easily.
I sort of got on a rant here, but I had begun thinking about this as I was reading about the Basque language, which has no known ancestral language. This is known as a language isolate. Only a few such languages are spoken by a significant population, Basque is the second largest language isolate, Korean is the largest language isolate with more speakers (80 million) which is more than all other speakers of a language isolate combined. As I was thinking about this, I began to think how much I admire people who can easily pick up a language. Science fiction, with its alien races, always has linguistics experts, or a “universal translator,” the cheat sheet for linguistics. On Stargate, there was Daniel Jackson who seemed to know every ancient language on Earth. In the Star Trek universe, Hoshi was a language expert on Enterprise, while in the new reboot of Star Trek, Uhura is a linguistics expert, but was merely a communications officer in the original Star Trek.
I love being a historian, but I greatly admire linguists. I think if more people understood the science of linguistics, then I think more people would want to know more than one language. It always angers me when xenophobic Americans refuse to even think about learning another language. These same people do not want to visit other countries or learn about other cultures. It reminds me of the Chinese of the Middle Ages who sent out explorers only to return and say that China was far superior and nothing worth knowing existed outside of China. Knowledge is power, and knowledge of languages is even more powerful.
I know this was an off the wall post, but sometimes I just like writing what’s on my mind and this was on my mind last night.