The cultural value of language

Tim Doner’s got an extraordinary hobby of collecting languages. (See his TEDxTeen talk here.)

I could relate to his experience of studying French in school for years but being unable to have a conversation, versus his technique of getting out there to “embarrass himself” and try to speak even if he does not speak correctly.

“Maybe you’re not that articulate or interesting when you talk,” he said, “but the point is, you’re getting out there and you’re getting exposure.”

I’ve often thought that non-native English speakers occasionally create charming, unintentional poetry when they take a chance and try to express an idea for which their vocabulary is lacking.

People really appreciate it when you are making an effort. Nelson Mandela aptly described this phenomenon in a quote Tim used in his talk:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Tim attempts to use news media interest in his language skills to highlight a cause for concern in the world today: the day-by-day loss of languages, and the concomitant loss  of ideas and cultural values that are inaccessible outside of their original contexts.

It reminded me of the book “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World” by Ella Frances Sanders, which contains delightful illustrations and translations of 50 words that express unique concepts in various languages. (If someone wanted to buy me the book, I would not be sad.)

I first heard about the book in an NPR story. I have ever since thought about the fantastical direction a narrative could take when the idea of a mångata is introduced.

Mangata“The roadlike reflection of the moon on the water” – the otherworldliness of the thought just gives me tingles of joy.

And, of course, for the book-addicted, I can’t leave aside tsundoku.

tsundokuIs it a crime to “leave a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books”? If so, I’m certainly guilty of it.

unread book pile

Language. Vocabulary. Words. I relish them. They are delicious.