Passion for learning languages
November 27, 2012 8:47 AM   Subscribe

How can I find a passion for language learning?

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti
I dislike tradition, a lot.

The older I get, the more I seem to dislike learning languages. I criticize the languages I learn. I criticize my own native language. It doesn't matter what the language is, I make fun of the pronunciation keys, structure, meaning, how the letters/characters are written*... Sometimes I mispronounce words/rearrange sentences on purpose to friends and family just to mess with them, then I tell them a version of, “You understood what I said right? Then _____ doesn't always need to be pronounced that way/said in that specific order.” People are just too used to the same patterns. Tradition.

I guess I'm not okay with how our ancestors/cave dwellers unscientifically evolved languages and we all, centuries after centuries, put on our sheep costumes and follow the herd. (Related side note: like the century-old QWERTY keyboard format, created unscientifically, which a majority of us still use—with other countries cramming their own languages onto the same format, pretending it's efficient when it's really built upon a shaky foundation. And now it's going onto phones, tablets, emerging devices... People showing off their “fast typing skills” when there could and should be something better. We really sheeped out on that one.) It just feels like there is no progress.

If languages are works of art, then most of them are terrible pieces of artwork (to me anyways, and that's art, artworks piss some people off right?). Yet, there are no other options, this is the best we have and if I don't try to like and enjoy the language I'm learning, then I miss out on a ton of other things. So how can I spark a passion for learning something I don't like and continue to criticize? How do some of you do it when learning a new language where something makes no sense at all, goes against your logic and you have to mold yourself to its stupid unscientific rules?

* I criticize the most basic things like how One to Nine in every language should each be a single-syllable word. So the two-syllable, “seven” in English makes no sense and we don't have the power to change it even if we wanted to since everyone has already agreed to it. Now go through nit-picking every other language and share my frustration—especially when learning a new language.
posted by querty to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like maybe you would like to learn Esparanto, a constructed language.
posted by Dansaman at 8:53 AM on November 27, 2012

This angst is precisely what Esperanto is for
posted by Blasdelb at 8:54 AM on November 27, 2012

Also English is not unique in how 1 to 9 is not one syllable. In Dutch zeven is 7 and negen is 9.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:58 AM on November 27, 2012

How do some of you do it when learning a new language where something makes no sense at all, goes against your logic and you have to mold yourself to its stupid unscientific rules?

Abandon the notion that logic has any place in it, and picture that cute little fox from Von Trier's Antichrist goin' "Chaos Reigns"!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:58 AM on November 27, 2012

I suggest you study how language gets created. I have had a class in linguistics and I dabble in language. I don't agree with your derisive assessment of how language is created any more than I agree with your derisive assessment of the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to intentionally slow people down so the speed of humans didn't muck up the early slow mechanical typewriters.

Similarly, languages have logic to them rooted in real world limitations. For example, most languages have a word for "mother" which starts with M because that's the earliest consonant human babies can physically form. Humans instinctively use "baby talk" with babies to help them bridge the complexity gap. Etc.

If you study it, a lot about the creation makes perfect sense. I find it amazing and delightful. Perhaps if you understood how language is created and evolved, it would look different to you.
posted by Michele in California at 9:21 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I heard once (probably Laoshu505000 on youtube) that one should treat new languages like good friends: they have faults yet you love them in spite of that, or perhaps because of that. We often love the quirks that makes them unique.
posted by acheekymonkey at 9:33 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, Esperanto might be of interest to you--though I have no doubt that you'd find idiosyncrasies in Esperanto, as well.

As a purely academic exercise, you should try devising a language that follows your personal tastes. For instance, I see no reason why numbers from 1-9 should be single syllables, and I don't think any of the 8 or 9 languages that I've studied have that trait. But if you think that's important, create a language where that's a rule.

Languages are flexible tools created by peoples to communicate with each other, nothing more, nothing less. To deride word order and pronunciation as merely "traditions" misses the point. It's like rebelling against driving on the right side of the road because it's irrational. Just go with it; that's the rule.

Or stop learning languages.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:34 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are looking for advice as to how to get over yourself I'd suggest looking no further than at yourself and your own moving parts; your basic biology is so much more stupidly designed, from an engineering perspective, than even the most arcane conceivable language. You have many more bones in your spine than you actually need for the range of motion you use, which contributes to the inevitable decline in back strength as we age. Your feet have the number of bones you would expect for a monkey that would need to grip tree branches with their feet, but you use your feet much more like a horse does, thus by having many small bones instead of few big ones you are trading strength and durability for no meaningful benefit - ask a diabetic why this is important. Your eyes are descended from an ancestral eye that selected for an inherent flaw in the basic design that the ancestors of Octopi did not - lucky them. You eat, often large blocky things, and drink using the same hole you breathe through. If there is a God of creation that went around designing the genomes of all of the living things on Earth, they are the sloppiest, most frustrating, terrible programmer you could possibly imagine. The Intelligent Design nuts are particularly frustrating to me having seen how fundamentally stupid the design of living critters actually is when you get down to the real moving parts. Looking at life through the lens of Max Delbrück’s slowly fulfilled dream of a science of molecular genetics to replace the stamp collecting of old school Drosophila genetics, the organization of information, regulation, and function in genomes makes precious little intuitive sense in terms of human logic. When you think about it; dumb shit like fundamentally unrelated systems being piled on top of each other such that one can’t be manipulated without fucking up the other – necessitating otherwise functionless patches to the paired system whenever the other is modified, Rube Goldberg-esque fragile systems of regulation that respond to all kinds of wrong stimuli, systems of global regulation that are pretty analogous to reading the same giant program in either Python or C++ to produce one of two desired results, and the kinds of systems that you can just tell are 99.9% amateur patch jobs, are really what you would expect from systems designed exclusively by entropic trial and error.

As a biologist, this is all part of the fun for me, all of the weird things that don't make sense or make a very non-human kind of sense. At least in evolution there are all kinds of amazingly creative things that are so much smarter than anything a human kind of logic could design. Likewise, languages are designed by principles at least similar to natural selection and are built according to a very different kind of sense than an engineer for example would be used to. I imagine there is are also similar kinds of non-intuitive intelligence, but I’m not a linguist.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:34 AM on November 27, 2012 [18 favorites]

I criticize the most basic things like how One to Nine in every language should each be a single-syllable word

Where does this idea come from? How did you decide what "should be" in any language, let alone every language? Since you object to the "unscientific" evolution of language, I am sure your reasons are scientific. (And no, Malcolm Gladwell's treatment of this in Outliers is not scientific) For example, why One through Ten? Why not One through Fifteen for a base-16 system?

I am your polar opposite. Studying foreign language is my favorite pastime. I do it because I love it. You ask, "So how can I spark a passion for learning something I don't like and continue to criticize?" I think the short answer is that you don't. If you think language is horrible, I see no reason for you to foster a passion in it. I do not see the point in making oneself like something in order to make one want to study it. If there is a practical reason why you must learn a new language e.g. you find yourself needing it for work or because you are an expatriate, then the incentive to learn the language is a practical one. Why do you want to want to study language?

"How do some of you do it when learning a new language where something makes no sense at all, goes against your logic and you have to mold yourself to its stupid unscientific rules?" I think this statement shows a lot of unfamiliarity with language. I find most languages to be quite logical, but all have their irregularities. Your question to me is like an anatomist complaining, "why do food intake and respiration use the same tube? That is illogical because it can cause choking!" That is true as far as it goes, but that complaint does not change reality. The anatomist's choice is to either study the body as is, or not.

By the way, it may interest you to know that the QWERTY keyboard was developed for a mechanical typewriter in order to prevent jams of the levers that bore the print heads. It was not designed to slow people down, but in fact designed to allow them to type faster by reducing jams. It is a relic today when applied to computers, cellphones, and even modern typewriters, but they didn't decide on that pattern at random.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:34 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" and "Words and Rules" are two books that explore the illogicalities of language and how they relate to human cognition and behavior. Not everything he says is as uncontroversial as he makes it sound, and I've been out of formal linguistics study for some time so I don't know what has gotten outdated, but I think they might help you make sense of some of this stuff.

I'd also encourage you to think of language as something you get used to, rather than as something you learn. The more time you spend with language as something that's made up of all these illogical rules and exceptions that you have to memorize, the more frustrating it can be. Try approaching it without getting too analytical. There doesn't have to be a reason for everything; but if you listen enough, and read enough, then eventually it starts to make sense.
posted by Jeanne at 9:37 AM on November 27, 2012

If this is interfering in your life and keeping you from doing what you want to do, I suggest speaking with a mental health professional. If you feel that this is new, and you haven't had this kind of issue before, or your friends/family have noticed a change in your behavior, I would suggest seeing someone sooner rather than later.

Mental health professionals are trained to help people deal with emotional reactions that get in the way of their goals.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:48 AM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

the young rope-rider's answer is also fantastic. If you had a love for languages and have lost it to this angst that could be an indication of depression, do you have other symptoms?

If so, that is a problem that does have solutions and would be worth addressing.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:53 AM on November 27, 2012

“You understood what I said right? Then _____ doesn't always need to be pronounced that way/said in that specific order.”

One of the linguists here at Metafilter pointed out recently (and I, idiot, forgot to bookmark it) that languages have evolved to be repetitive, because the whole point is to be able to communicate with each other, and most of the time in the real world conditions are not ideal: the background noise is too loud, your conversation partner mumbles, or you both get distracted. So languages repeat themselves so that you can understand people anyway: because you get more than one chance to get the right information. I thought that was really smart.

That seems relevant, because it sounds like you've lost track of the fact that the purpose of a language is to communicate with other people. And I don't see your above example as proving what you think it is proving. Instead I see it as an example of how powerful and flexible a language can be: even if you massacre the pronunciation or up-end the word order (things I do unintentionally all the time as a language-learner) people can still understand what you mean! I think that's amazing, not idiotic. And I think practicing languages more often on native speakers and seeing how well a language, even badly spoken, can still function and connect you to other people could be an antidote to your frustration.

Also, a large part of your annoyance with languages seems to come from the assumption that all the languages in the world solidified at some distant point in our past, and that they haven't changed at all since then because people are narrow-minded idiots. This simply isn't true. The printing revolution in Europe in the 15th century started a process that significantly slowed down the rate of change, but it hasn't stopped languages from changing all together. Consider English when Beowulf was written (before the 11th century): "Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum, / þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon." To Chaucer (end of the 14th): The Canterbury Tales: "Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun/To telle yow al the condicioun/Of ech of hem, so as it semed me." To Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet(16th): "Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?/Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name/When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?" Even though Shakespeare's English is a lot more recognizable, I have trouble imagining anyone making a serious argument that English hasn't changed at all since then.

I think there are a lot of interesting questions to pose about how and why various groups have tried to standardize languages. For example, dictionaries as we think of them are a relatively recent invention: the first serious English dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 over 100 years after Shakespeare died. And the modern nation-state is basically the first type of government where all of the citizens are expected to speak the same language as the people in charge, and where efforts have been made to make sure that is the case. But getting mad at people in the past for being sheeple seems like ignoring the realities of history just so you can get mad, which doesn't seem very productive really.
posted by colfax at 11:31 AM on November 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

You really do sound kind of depressed or something, and at least one of your previous posts posits a totally oddball theory (that speaking English causes bad teeth) about language, which makes about as much sense as your theory that numbers from one to ten should all be monosyllabic. That's pointless and wouldn't matter. In my native language, five of the first ten numbers have two syllables, and one additional one has three, and we count just fine! Four of the first ten in Hungarian have two syllables, and one of the numbers has two forms unrelated to anything like gender. Spanish only has three monosyllabic numbers of its first ten. So where are you getting this silly idea from? Among languages which typically form words with more than one syllable, it's pretty rare.

The "art" of language, at least to me, isn't in that it represents any sort of perfection, but rather than so much beauty and winder can be constructed from awkward, haphazard and disparate elements. Lamguage is a tool. not a work of art, and many people create great art with the tool of language. Others play with its rules and inaccuracies and randomness and have a lot of fun.

I know a Mexican guy whom all his buddies calls Cindy. He's good-looking and masculine, and I never could figure out why he was called Cindy. Until one day he surprised me by taking out his false teeth, and it hit me - "SIN DIentes!" ("Without teeth" in Spanish). The imperfections of language give us art, humor, suspense and so much more.

You're also kind of arguing against yourself. You want "scientific rules" but then (presumably) annoy the crap out of everyone but childishly mispronouncing words and using sentence structure that's not readily sensical to most people. You want logic, but maintaining consistency in usage of a language is a pretty logical thing to do.

Lamguage changes a lot, and many of the changes that English has undergone have been ones which have headed the language towards simplification and ease-of-use, because it's advantageous to humanity, culture and nteraction that languages have efficiency and utility. English has eliminated most case endings, standardized verb forms to a large extent, and so on. That goes against "tradition" and towards logic, but you don't seem to recognize it.

I think maybe you simply don't like learning languages and should try something else instead.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:08 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Why are you studying languages if you don't enjoy it? Are you at all interested in the cultures that the languages you're studying are facets of? I don't think I could ever be motivated to learn a language if I wasn't passionately interested in the entire culture and society it represents. But, to go with that, if you think all 'tradition' is meaningless or pointless, I doubt you can ever really come to enjoy many things about cultural diversity, so maybe the lack of tolerance for language and its internal logic is part of a broader issue.
I also think you need to let go of the idea that anything is really fully 'scientific' or objectively better--nothing anyone does is perfectly objective or logical to the utmost extent, since all humans are products of their subjective experiences and bound to illogical assumptions about the world around them. You will never be able to explain anything with perfect 'science' (and in fact the idea of an objective science is really problematic in itself, just look at scientific contributions to racism and sexism)--thus why languages can seem impossible or illogical at times.
posted by Papagayo at 1:51 PM on November 27, 2012

Why do you learn languages if you dislike it so much? Does your job require you to learn languages? If so, can we switch, because I absolutely love learning languages and my ideal job would be one in which I was paid to study them all day long.

Unfortunately, I cannot explain why it is that I like learning languages so much, and I have noticed that some people simply do not like foreign languages. They get wrapped up in pointing out how "illogical" some constructions are, how X language is spoken too fast or is too impractical to pronounce, how some feature of the language is redundant or irregular, etc. etc. To me, these variations and irregularities and awkwardness are beautiful, and I think it's awesome when I read about the gigantic consonant clusters of the Salish languages, or the use of -miş in Turkish to refer to reported information, or languages that have an Object Verb Subject order instead of our English Subject Verb Object. I love reading about language isolates like Burushaski smack dab in the middle of some other well established language families that linguists cannot link to any other known language. I love how expressing certain things or moods or feelings can be more concise in other languages than in my own.

But, it sounds like the very things I like about foreign languages are the things you dislike, so I'm not sure what to say. I think it's just an aspect of your personality, sort of like some people (like myself) love trying new food and actively seek it out, and others cringe from anything that isn't dry chicken breasts and potatoes. So my answer is, if you truly feel this way, then there is likely no way to force yourself to like something which you do not by nature.
posted by pravit at 4:17 PM on November 27, 2012

I suggest spend some time learning the basics of Ancient Greek. I study Latin, Danish, Russian, and now Ancient Greek, and only with the latter have I really become perplexed by the amount of rules that have to be considered in. But the fact that there are so many rules, to this old language, which developed out of proto-indo-european, which developed out of... NOTHING... it's sublime. Language is sublime. Humans are sublime.
posted by SollosQ at 5:36 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great answers everyone... except for
> Dee Xtrovert: ...which makes about as much sense as your theory that numbers from one to ten should all be monosyllabic. That's pointless and wouldn't matter... So where are you getting this silly idea from?
I got that silly idea from Chapter 8 of Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers (you should read it and educate yourself). I'm not looking for perfection here, but it does matter a lot in terms of efficiency and for learning with a solid foundation. Some of his reference is from Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics

I guess I'm looking more for a mathematical approach to languages (but not in this lifetime); so what you guys find beautiful in language variations/irregularities/awkwardness I find to be unnecessary stress for learning.
posted by querty at 5:47 AM on November 28, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell is well-known for saying stupid things about subjects about which he is uneducated. Pop science is not really "education". I'm not trying to bust your balls here, I'm trying to clue you in to what seems like a massive Dunning-Kruger effect you have going on here with regards to your knowledge of language and linguistics.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:51 AM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm educated enough to know that Gladwell is frequently a fool, and in the case of the numbers things he's using the old ploy of "confirming" something we all "know" (that Asians are good at math) via a novel and memorale explanation. The problems with this are:

1) Frequently, the initial assumption is false or grossly overstated. And unexamined.

2) Frequently, the explanation isn't accurate, it just sounds good. Or interestingly.

3) Frequently, more salient explanations / factors are left unstated.

Gladwell hits the trifecta with this one. Asians (shorthand for "speakers of Asian languages with monosyllabic single digits) aren't necessarily better at math than speakers of other languages. To the extent that they are, it would likely have loads more to do with educational system that promotes types of learning that work better in the field of simple mathematics - drills and rote memorization. Dehaene missed out on a lot of factors intrinsic in some languages that affect things like the mind's retention of long strings of numbers (which he and Gladwell tout as being meaningful), such as mnemonic devices intrinsic in a language like the largely-monosyllabic Mandarin, which allows for connections between words and numbers that can make memorization easier. Up to a point. Get into theoretical mathematics, and the Germans and Hungarians have them beat . . . perhaps that ease in the beginning becomes a hindrance as one advances? Gladwell overstates things. A monosyllabic number system does not, empirically, make all that much difference in the beginning of acquiring math skills. Educated people get along fine, no matter what their language.

I've read three of Gladwell's books. They are mildly interesting in the sense that they're okay to read on an airplane for laughs, but they're pretty crap as meaningful science goes, and not something that most honestly educated people would point to as reasonable research on any subject. Certainly they are horrific source material for something like linguistic theory. Educate yourself. Read some books about this stuff that aren't pop science bestsellers. Or take a serious linguistics course.

Language is not mathematical, which is probably because people are not mathematical. I know people who have approached language learning mathematically and have made great strides in retainng vast amounts of vocabulary and structural rules. But usually, their ability to express anything outside of dry subject matters just sucks. It's a bad way to go about language learning, as it eschews the soul of things. Learning a new language well requires use of the right side of one's brain; a mathematical approach is a shortcut that won't serve you well in the end.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:23 AM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

> the young rope-rider: I'm trying to clue you in to what seems like a massive Dunning-Kruger effect you have going on here
Ah, that did it for me, thanks. I think I really just need a big slap in the face, haha.
posted by querty at 5:48 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older Can't Stay in a World Without (bike) Gloves.   |   Late twenties female, sexually inexperienced, who... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.