On the Pleasures of Speaking a D-List Language
Travel Blog • Jim Benning • 03.02.11 | 12:29 PM ET
There’s something to be said for speaking French, German, Spanish or other major foreign languages when you travel. I know my Spanish skills helped open doors that otherwise would have been closed to me in Latin America. There’s no way, for example, that a mariachi group in Chihuahua, Mexico, would have asked me to join them on their evening rounds—from bars to a quinceñera to a wedding—if I hadn’t, in Spanish, expounded upon my love for Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s heart-wrenching songs. A trumpet player literally opened the door to their minivan and invited me in.
But in the latest Smithsonian, World Hum contributor Tom Swick celebrates the unexpected joys of speaking minority languages—say, Polish—that are, as he puts it, on the D-list:
By learning a language that is usually considered difficult and not markedly practical, you accomplish something few outsiders attempt. And appreciation for your effort is almost always greater than that shown, say, to a French major spending her junior year in Paris.
Yet the benefits extend beyond appreciation. When you acquire a new language, you acquire a new set of references, catchphrases, punch lines, songs—all the things that enable you to connect with the people. And the smaller the community, the deeper the connection. Speakers of D-list languages often feel misunderstood; a foreigner who understands—gets the allusions, reads the poets—not surprisingly becomes like family. All languages open doors; minority languages also open hearts.
Makes you want to run out and learn a little Basque, no?