Can I Have a Word?

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Dark Room-Board Game
Musings on Language

 

In a modest space, there was a table and a chair.

Resting on the table was something resembling a board game.

One could discern the intricately decorated rectangle, inviting a player into a world of challenge and potential victory.

The game might include pieces, possibly a die or two.

When seated, one contemplates the game’s objectives and success, informed by past experiences and observations of others.

Regardless of the preparation, play is supposed to be freeform and spontaneous. You engage with it.

A closer look reveals that the board’s words are unrecognizable.

They may not even be words at all.

The characters appear foreign, like symbols from an alien script or a child’s unique language.

What kind of language is this?

Is there a key out there to decipher these symbols?

Is there another person in the room, familiar with the game or the language, to be a guide?

Feelings of apprehension, frustration, and being overwhelmed may arise.

I experience a version of this room when I find myself in a country whose language is unfamiliar.

 

The Pause

I was in Mexico City for a wedding last month.

Approaching a taxi kiosk at the airport, I mentally prepared my rehearsed phrases.

I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the Spanish language.

I’ve immersed myself in various musical genres, movies, and TV shows.

I’ve absorbed the colorful language of my youth soccer days in Texas.

I’ve also diligently practiced with Duolingo this year, hoping for a linguistic lifeline.

Still, when forced to speak, I froze.

To the Rescue?

Learning languages has always fascinated me.

I aspire to communicate with people in their native tongues, offering them the same courtesy many extend to me in the U.S.

I want to grasp cultural subtleties and engage with media beyond my immediate surroundings.

The freeze is a common challenge discussed in language learning communities.

Various language learning programs claim they can overcome this communicative pause, assuring fluency in no time.

But is that truly what we should aim for?

I recently encountered an article by Douglas Hofstader, who expresses concerns about AI and the potential loss of our multifaceted nature in exchange for convenience.

Hofstader, a proficient linguist in his own right, recalls using Mandarin Chinese during a three-minute session at a Shanghai AI club event. Despite his current diminishing ability in the language, he fondly remembers the struggle to learn, stating:

“When I was in the roughest times in my endless battles with the Chinese language, I often wished that I could just get an injection that would make me perfectly fluent in Chinese in a flash. How wonderful it would be to be able, at last, to understand everyone around me, to say anything I wanted to say, and so on! But when I thought about it for only a few seconds, I realized that after getting such an injection, I would not feel proud of having learned Chinese by struggling for many years. My instant fluency in Chinese would, in that case, be a trivial acquisition rather than a precious goal obtained thanks to immense hard work. It would mean nothing to me, emotionally. It would be like arriving at the summit of Everest in a helicopter.”

Hofstader fears that laziness might drive the continuous refinement of language simulation technologies, leading to a world where a person can communicate with anyone at the click of a button. I think he views this like a gamer who, frustrated by losing 3-0 at FIFA, manipulates CPU game settings in-game to come back.

Are there valuable applications for this kind of technology? Of course. We may already be close or even there. We already see the proliferation of AI language tutors, voice simulation, and the dubbing of podcast episodes into other languages.

Does this mean we can decrease misunderstanding? Could there be new forms of misunderstanding?

Will AI render language learning obsolete, allowing us to mold our voices effortlessly into any desired language? Perhaps, but this single question misses the complete point of learning a language.

 

The Love of the Challenge

Beyond communication, language learning for many is about personal growth, setting and surpassing goals.

I view language learning as a puzzle, striving to understand more over time about the language(s) of focus and my relationship with learning.

In the past, I’ve abandoned intuitive methods for conventional ones, only to later realize that convention doesn’t necessarily equate to correctness.

My journey has led me to accept that I may not be a language prodigy or that my learning methods may need refining—or both.

I’ve also learned of the power of fear as a factor in my progress; I fear using the language and failing to impress.

But beyond communication and challenge, my ultimate goal in learning new languages is to expand my worldview.

 

Another’s Shoes

There’s an inexplicable embarrassment I feel in places where I don’t speak the language, which probably exacerbates the communicative pause.

I chastise myself for not being fluent, wondering why I can’t effortlessly switch languages like Xiaomanyc.

It could be arrogance, aspiration, or setting myself up for failure.

In the Netherlands, my attempts at Dutch are telepathic at best, with “Dank je wel” (or thank you very much) being my go-to phrase.

I’ve never studied Dutch before.

It could also be guilt for having previously dominated conversations in my native tongue, oblivious to others’ comfort.

Or perhaps it’s a desire to defy stereotypes.

I was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, but English was the language of business in their country of birth and thus my primary language.

It just happened to be the language to know.

Given my privilege of speaking the current lingua franca, I strive to be understanding of others’ English proficiency.

Belgian and Manchester City (ugh) soccer star Kevin De Bruyne, in an interview, once addressed the linguistic disparity between European and British footballers:

“There are a lot of people from different countries who speak two or three languages, where English players usually only speak English. I come from a country where by 13 you are studying Dutch, French and English.”

The interviewer suggested multilingualism fosters wisdom and humility, requiring empathy and adaptability.

De Bruyne eloquently stated:

“The Belgian way was never going to be the only way.”

 

What is the Point?

I studied French throughout high school and college, yet my proficiency has plateaued, particularly in spoken French, due to a lack of consistent practice. Nonetheless, I enjoy the language and can comprehend written and spoken French to some extent. Despite being frequently English-ed in Paris, I found solace in my ability to navigate simple transactions in French. And that’s okay.

Ultimately, the goal of language is communication. Not everyone who uses a language is a master of it; I sometimes question my own English proficiency, stammering about like I tend to do at times.

A few lessons I’ve learned over my language journey so far include adopting a beginner’s mindset, the importance of intention: determining whether I aim to use the language for speaking, writing, or listening, and then practicing accordingly. Action begets proficiency.

I hope to speak another language more fluently, whether French, Spanish, my current focus, Turkish, or another. Until then, I will continue to practice all forms of communication, mindful of my approach and focus, while broadening my perspective.

Communication need not be elaborate.

Convey your message and move forward.

There’s always more to say, but for now, this suffices.

Brevity is indeed a virtue.


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