Is language learning a hobby or an obsession? Erik Zidowecki; blogger, writer, cofounder of UniLang and the creator Parleremo explains in this guest article that for some of us language learning isn’t just something we do because it’s cool but a passion, an obsession and a way of life.
A friend of mine recently made a comment about how, in some cases, learning a foreign language is a hobby. This is hardly an earth-shattering observation, but it upset a few some. Why? He had made his statement to a large group of people who were very passionate about learning languages.
At the risk of incurring more of their wrath, I would go even further with his comment and say that most people don’t have a choice when it comes to learning a second language. They must do so for two main reasons:
First, languages are a mandatory subject in many schools around the world.
In Asia: English or Mandarin are part of the curriculum for many students. In the European Union, it is compulsory for students to study at least one foreign language at some point during their education. Even in the “English only” environment of the United States, where learning a second language is often optional, there is increasing pressure on the education standards to make second language acquisition a requirement.
Secondly, many countries have bilingual or even trilingual societies, in which citizens grow up speaking more than one language in their daily lives. It isn’t forced upon them, but rather just part of surviving. If you are reading this and your native language isn’t English, then you have probably had to learn it in school or just picked it up in your daily life.
In both of these cases, having a second language is a tool, a means of communications, and not something you really choose. Furthermore, if you were forced to learn it in school, you are likely to soon forget it, along with many other subjects you were required to learn.
Now obviously, people learn languages even if they don’t have to. That is when we get into the question of dedication.
The comment about it being a hobby is accurate because for most people, languages are just another thing to learn; there is no compunction to do so. For them, the reasons for learning may range from wanting to be prepared when travelling to a foreign country, trying to get a better job in which a secondary language is a useful skill, or simply wanting to watch Bollywood films or Anime without subtitles.
Unsurprisingly, that is the audience most language learning materials are designed for. The quick-and-easy, feel-good products make the casual learner happy as they pick up a scattering of vocabulary and phrases, perhaps even enough to carry on a simple conversation, like asking for directions to the nearest toilet or if a person wants to play chess.
This isn’t a bad thing. We all have things that we learn and do that have some importance to us, but they aren’t a major focus. These are the things that give extra value to our lives as well as an alternative to the things required of us.
A popular hobby in this age of computers is playing digital games, ranging from video games to adventure games. I personally enjoy playing Free Cell and Pocket Legends, the former being a solitary card game and the latter being a multi-player adventure game. I am not forced to play them, nor will they really affect my life in any meaningful way, but I do enjoy them. Other hobbies I have include playing old fashioned roll playing games (RPGs), reading fantasy novels, playing music, painting miniatures, and collecting foreign currency.
I believe the suggestion that learning languages is a hobby touched a nerve because there is a kind of person for whom languages are far more than a passing interest. For these people, it is a passion; something they love doing and can’t imagine living without.
In some cases, these could even be described as obsessions – something they do not by choice or by anyone forcing them to, but a need in the mind, a compulsion, that drives them.
Where does this obsession come from? Many people can probably tell you what first made them interested in languages.
For me, it was seeing other alphabets – like Greek, Cyrillic, and Mayan – that made me think about how there really were people that didn’t speak English. How do they think and communicate? In what other ways are they different from me? Can I enter into these other worlds and experience things I’ve never known before?
People can tell you how they first heard a specific language and how it fascinated them. Perhaps it was a foreign book or song that drew them to languages. Everyone will have their own tale of how they came to be involved with other languages than their own.
I don’t think any of these instances got anyone hooked, though. I believe that we are all predisposed to certain ideas and subjects, and that it is only a matter of finding a path to these; the things we love
Those who have a passion have found the triggers to their obsessions, and they can happily live their lives in pursuit of these.
It isn’t easy, though. Anything that makes you passionate can also make your life difficult; perhaps even alienating you from the people around you.
How can you possibly explain to your friends why you need to buy that book on Prussian, or why your dream is to become fluent in Irish? Why can’t they understand that you watch James Bond films not for the sex, violence, and gadgets, but in the hopes that you will hear the bad guys speaking in Russian? Why can’t you get any of them to watch “L’auberge Espagnole” with you for the twelfth time? When will your friends understand that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was written to showcase the Elvish language, and that the plot was an afterthought?
The first language I was really drawn to was Russian, with the “odd” alphabet and the sharp but lyrical sounding words. I studied the alphabet, language, and history. In my university, a few of us were even offered the chance to visit the Soviet Union, if we could come up with enough people who were interested and each of us could provide our own money for it.
When I excitingly told a friend of mine of this possibility, he gave me a very strange look before asking me, “Do you know how many diskettes you could buy with that money?”
Yes, I went to a technical geek school.
His response shocked me. How could one not want to go to the Soviet Union? By this time in my life, I had already been to Japan and Canada with my family and to Italy the year before to visit a friend.
This friend’s complete apathy stunned me, but his equivalency was even more alien. How can you compare a collection of disposable plastic media to the experience of a whole new culture and language? It was the first time I truly understood how different this passion makes us. We were seeing a completely alien concept in one another.
Even sadder, the trip never actually happened.
There were not enough people with the same desires interested in the trip, so it was cancelled. We tried again the next year, and that was also cancelled – again because of lack of interest. After that the USSR was dissolved.
To this day, I know it collapsed just to prevent me from going there.
The language obsession goes beyond just wanting to learn and travel. It affects how we see the world. Any book we pick up, any film we consider watching, any music we might start listening to is viewed through the eyes of those who would question how much they will feed our need for other languages.
I first started listening to Shakira because I saw her video for “Suerte”, which was in Spanish – something you don’t normally see on regular television here in the US.
I started watching a show about people buying homes in other countries; “House Hunters International”, hoping to hear people speaking other languages. I started buying foreign films on EBay because it was almost impossible to rent them. Even now, I have more foreign DVDs then I do English. I long ago sold off the collection of books I had as a teen to replace them with foreign dictionaries, phrase books, and courses, even of languages I will never learn.
You’re probably smiling now, thinking that I am either nuts, or perhaps you’re nuts as well and you recognize the same patterns in your own activities. This is how we language fanatics differ from those who are only interested in languages as a passing interest, a hobby.
The language obsession isn’t something we choose; but then neither is it something we can ignore.
As with any passion if we don’t embrace it, it will drive us insane. But then again, to people that don’t understand, we are insane for embracing it.
Language fan. Language learner. Language enthusiast. Language addict. Language freak. Pick whichever title you wish. We might be crazy in our language obsession, but it is such a sweet insanity!
Erik Zidowecki is a computer programmer and language lover. He is a co-founder of UniLang and founder of Parleremo, both web communities dedicated to helping people learn languages. Erik also maintains Parleremo’s blog View from the Town.
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