Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why I Decided to Learn These Languages

I found this post after googling a Yiddish saying.

I'm from New Orleans. I grew up with Creole/Cajun French mixed in with our English, much in the same way that many people in Jewish-American communities grow up hearing Yiddish words and phrases.

I have two Latina cousins and my mother taught herself Spanish and we attended a Spanish-Speaking congregation for about a year. Most of the Spanish that I know comes from these experiences. I'm not fluent enough to speak it, but I can understand it when it's spoken or written. Spanish never interested me enough to really pursue learning it.

With that background, I took a year of French in high school, to increase my vocabulary. Because of my culture(s), it wasn't very difficult to absorb. I truly believe that French is the language of love. No language sounds sexier, to me. They have the best terms of endearment and interesting twists of phrases that have to do with intimacy. Even my German-American husband loves it.

Many Semitic Arabs speak French, so when I started college, I was able to interact quite well with the international students from areas like Algeria and Morocco. They would invite me to off-campus cultural events, because I could at least understand the French that they mixed with their Arabic.

That motivated me to take a couple of years of Arabic at our university. It was mostly Cairene, but one semester we did have a very strict professor from Algeria who endeavored to remove all of what he viewed as slang words from our vocabulary. He also taught us a bit of Classical Arabic, which is useful, if you want to read the great works of literature from that area. It was really helpful and I think I benefited from it.

If someone was going to learn Arabic, I would still suggest that they learn Cairene. It is the most commonly understood dialect. Egypt produces much of the television programming and theater movies that are watched by Arabic-speakers throughout the Middle East and the Maghrib (i.e. North Africa). You might not understand all of what a person from, say, Oman is trying to express, but he will likely be able to understand you.

Since I could understand Arabic, hearing people speak Hebrew always sounded vaguely familiar. It was JUST close enough to Arabic for me to understand a word or two when I heard someone speaking Hebrew. Naturally, I decided that I should learn to read Hebrew so that I didn't have to rely on someone speaking it, in order for me to understand things like traffic signs, names of buildings, et cetera.

I just finished a Hebrew course offered as a leisure class at one of our local universities. Knowing Arabic made learning Hebrew grammar feel quite natural. I'm hoping that there will be enough people interested for them to offer a Level 2 class over the summer.

Once I finish tackling Hebrew, I have no idea what that will make me interested in. Maybe Yiddish? Or Amharic? Yiddish would let me use the alphabets that I'm most familiar with, but it has a lot less Hebrew. My brain has seems to have permanent block, when it comes to learning German, so I wonder if that would make Yiddish pretty difficult for me. Amharic would require learning a new alphabet, but it would include more of the vocabulary that I've already studied.

I think learning languages enriches a person's life experiences. It's also a good way to get a better deal, when you're doing business with someone whose primary language isn't English. You're less likely to be cheated, if a person sees you as a part of their community. I've found that to be true in every language, including English.

If you're reading this, I hope that you'll pursue the languages of your ancestors. One of the worst aspects of American slavery was the fact that the enslaved people were not allowed to teach their native tongue to their children. Because of that horrible and indelible stain on our nation, most African-Americans don't have any knowledge of the languages spoken by their African ancestors. This has caused us to be disconnected from our ancestral culture--no matter how many speakers you have around you, a person will always be excluded from significant aspects of their culture, if they can't speak it it themselves. I think that those who are fortunate enough to know their history owe it to their ancestors to pass on as much of the culture as they can to their descendants.


Rootietoot said...

The language of my ancestors is Gaelic...not something terribly practical unless I plan on spending a year on Iona. It's too cold there. I am picking up some Spanish, VERY useful in this community with it's large Hispanic population. This whole "English as an official language" nonsense is...well...NONSENSE. Which English would that be? The one spoken by the Columbian Invaders in 1492? oh wait...they were Spanish. The Puritan Invaders in 1620? Right, like we'd understand them now, anyway. Language is such a fluid thing, making an Official One is kind of silly, especially in a country that calls itself a melting pot. The more languages you can speak, the more people you can communicate with, and that is *never* a bad thing.
Having said that, I can only speak English. I can read German and Dutch, very slowly.

Elayne said...

I agree, I think Yiddish will be tough for you if German is a roadblock, it's mostly German (at least in my experience). On the other hand, I took a year of German in college to be able to understand my parents' Yiddish and it didn't help. :) My dad tried to teach me Romanian (he emigrated from there as a teenager) but he was a horrible teacher, so I never learned. :) I did learn French and Spanish in high school, and Hebrew in yeshiva, but I think I've forgotten most of that. Language is such a use-it-or-lose it thing.