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Collecting Foreign Tongues

by Tom Thompson

Some people collect baseball cards, spoons, antiques, or art. I collect foreign languages.

I once read that mostly we collect oddities that have little value beyond personal tastes. My own collecting efforts have been intense, life-long, and even transformative.

Growing up in South central Indiana - I'm now in my 60s - the homogeneity of the flat landscape there, along with too much Spam on Wonder-bread, made it easy to exocitise the faraway places that my high school language classes symbolized.

All for the effort of a teacher saying "Repeat after me," I became a young and adventurous, even if much less talented, Sir Richard Burton, without even leaving our little town's land-locked five square miles.

It was so much fun that another kind and generous teacher helped me extend my geographical reach with the gift of a short-wave radio. That brought to me an instant, veritable Tower of Babel that was as close as my fingertips.

What followed was a scholarship path to college, a junior year abroad, graduate school and more foreign trips, interesting jobs, and even a wonderful wife whose first language, Spanish, are all anchored by that teacher's now seemingly incredible effort to simply encourage one of her students.

My language classes and travels have left an indelible lesson that goes well beyond language fundamentals. Once learned, nothing can take away my collection of foreign languages. Illness. Floods. House fires. Divorce. I've experienced all of these, but through them all I've moved along with more collecting. What a bounty!

There are academics these days who argue that different thoughts and actions are controlled by this or that language. And there are those who say that their personalities change from language to language.

Certainly every language has a unique flow and rhythm, and often even a special body language, as Edward Hall once wrote, that puts words and motion together to paint a particular cultural picture.

I don't know much about any of these theories. One thing for certain is that if you're bored or unhappy with your life, just learn another language, and you'll be fine. For each language you learn and try to speak, there's the chance that it will motivate your listener to tell you how he, or she, sees things. That's often part of a trip that doesn't even require a plane ride.

About the author

Tom Thompson has studied twenty or so different languages, some of which he speaks well. He received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.

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