Have you ever noticed that writers of the past often had a far better command of the English language than we do? One reason is that for centuries, across all of Western Civilization, becoming educated meant learning Latin and Greek. So the writer educated that way could step outside of his native English (or German or French) to walk around in a different language for a while. If you have ever thought that C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien had a way with words that you did not, it’s probably because those men were educated when learning Latin and Greek as part of basic education was still a thing.
During my lifetime, language teaching has gone from a grammar-emphasis, which explained how the language was supposed to work but made you memorize irregular verbs, to a ‘conversational’ approach which made you memorize whole sentence since you weren’t required to learn the grammar to make up your own sentences correctly. In either method, I got cynical about language learning as a kid when I realized all the kids in all the schools were taking French, German or Spanish but there were zero books in the local bookstores in those languages. Therefore, not many of the language learners were learning enough to even attempt to read a book in the languages they were learning. (By contrast, when I did my year abroad in Germany, I was able to buy an English-language autobiography of Harpo Marx that I had been seeking in vain back home.)
GERMAN was the first language I learned, since my maternal grandparents were immigrants from Germany and my mother’s very first language was German, though she was not that fluent as an adult. She taught me a couple of prayers in German, and how to count in German. I took German classes in school when I could, and took many German classes in college. I have read numerous books in German, since I learned the secret of finding an interesting book, starting reading, and writing down a list of the words I was unsure of. When I had ten or more on the list, I got out my German-English dictionary. Before long I was able to read more fluently without looking a lot of stuff up.
ESPERANTO was a language I always wanted to learn ever since I learned about it in my Golden Book Encyclopedia. I didn’t get the chance until I saw Teach Yourself Esperanto, a textbook for English speakers, in a bookstore in Germany during my year abroad. I worked my way through the first four chapters of the book and then was able to read stuff in Esperanto. Esperanto is an invented language designed for international use with no irregular verbs and simple grammar. A person can learn Esperanto in about 1/10th the time that it would take that person to learn French or some other national language (like German or Russian.) Esperanto is a highly resented language since so many people fear having to learn it, and so there are rumors that Esperanto died out in 1920. But since there are current podcasts, shortwave radio broadcasts, and books, blogs and web pages in Esperanto, I kind of suspect it’s still around.
SERBIAN or SERBO-CROATIAN is the language of some local friends of mine. I started studying it because it is a Slavic language but the words are pronounced exactly as written, unlike Russian. It’s hard, but I have the Book2 book and have downloaded the free audios that go with it. (I have audios for German speakers learning Serbian, and for Esperanto speakers learning Serbian, so I am reviewing my other languages when I do my Serbian.
LATIN is something I have been interested in since later childhood, and I have a bunch of language learning books for Latin in the house. This year I decided to add Latin to my official language rotation. I already had the Lingua Latina books, and purchased the audios of it in Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation. I listen to Vatican Radio’s weekly podcast in Latin (I also listen to the Esperanto, German and Croatian podcasts.)
MY LANGUAGE WEEK
Over a year ago I decided on a three-day language rotation for German, Esperanto and Serbian. I would listen to podcasts in the daily language and do other language work. For Serbian I also listened to my Book2 audios daily since I am still learning at a beginner stage.
This year I added Latin into the rotation. So now I have 4 languages instead of 3. In either case, my language days rotate around the days of the week. Since I write down the day-of-the-week in the language of the day in my calendar, it helps in learning the days of the week in each of my languages.
Some weeks I am more diligent in my languages, some less. Which is the way I am. But I think that regularizing my languages review keeps me more up-to-date in the languages. My German knowledge, particularly, had been declining since my college years since I don’t use it much. Now I think I am getting my German back.
DOES FOREIGN LANGUAGE REALLY HELP?
It’s not really possible to know. If I’d had a duplicate me, and we had decided that one of us would pursue language knowledge and the other would not, and that we would both write, maybe by now we could tell if the language-learning-me wrote better than the non-language-me. Maybe. Because the non-language-me would have had to have done something while I was fiddling about with languages, and maybe that something would improve the writing, too. And we would have different life experiences from the moment of our duplication, and that alone might account for differences in writing skill.
CHRISTIAN WRITERS OF SCI-FI/FANTASY you are welcome to join the Facebook group: Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers https://www.facebook.com/groups/366357776755069/ for writer networking (sorry, no book promos allowed since there is a separate group for that.)