I am going to post a few random excerpts from my book over the next few days. This book is entitled ” The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning.” The book is available in print form in English and Chinese and in e-book version in French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.
Fish traps exist to capture fish.
Once you’ve got the fish you can forget the trap.
Rabbit snares exist to capture rabbits.
Once you’ve got the rabbit you can forget the snare.
Words exist to capture meaning.
Once you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
I’d like to have a word with him!
– Zhuangzi, 4th century BC
Our ancestors created language in order to communicate. What a glorious invention. The ability to express our thoughts through language is what distinguishes us from animals. These great ancestors of ours did not have grammar or perfection in mind when they developed the first language, just the desire to get their meaning across. It may seem obvious, but to become a successful linguist you have to want to communicate in another language. People who are good at learning another language have a goal in mind, to communicate. That means to get to know people of another culture, not just to learn the rules of a new language as an academic subject .Unfortunately the emphasis on second language education in our school systems has caused many language learners to lose sight of this essential reason for language learning. In my own case, it was only when I became motivated to connect with a new culture and people that I was on my way to becoming a linguist.
Not all people are interested in meeting people of another culture and language. My wife Carmen and I were recently on holiday in California. When swimming in the hotel pool we heard the unmistakable sounds of people speaking Canadian English. There were two couples from Ottawa staying at the same resort. We joined them for a drink that evening. Interestingly both the wives spoke French and Spanish as well as English, but one of the husbands, an apparently successful businessman, was adamant that learning to speak languages was unnecessary. To him the important thing was to have good ideas. “You can always find a translator” he maintained.
I argued with him that human achievement, including business success, depended on communication. No matter how brilliant an idea, it needs to be communicated effectively in order to influence people. Surveys of employers consistently show the ability to communicate to be the most sought after characteristic in new employees. But remembering Zhuangzi I did not try too hard to enlighten this man. Obviously learning languages was not in his nature.