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?

6 Comments for On the Pleasures of Speaking a D-List Language

Nicki 03.03.11 | 4:23 PM ET

It’s nice you can speak several languages. I am in the constant pursuit of learning a few languages… I just never compeltely grasp them.

tom swick 03.03.11 | 10:46 PM ET

Nicki,  I can sympathize with you. I was fortunate enough to live in France and Poland - total immersion is the only way I’ve been able to learn a language.

Emma 03.07.11 | 5:18 AM ET

Learning a local language allows you to give something back to the community your travelling through for sure. We travel slowly, by bicycle, and have usually learnt enough to tell people where we’re going and what we’re doing in each country, but that’s it.

On a longer pause in Istanbul I decided to take Turkish lessons. I met some other long term travellers on a week trip away from Istanbul and they asked why I had ‘bothered’ to learn a ittle of a language that wouldn’t help me in any other country. For me it was a no brainer…

tommynomad 03.07.11 | 6:06 PM ET

I urge my students to learn five phrases in every local language they may encounter when travelling:
- Please/Thank you
- Hello/Goodbye
- Where is…?
- How much?
- Delicious!
I also tell the single travellers to throw in “beautiful/handsome.”  I’ve learned (and since forgotten) these in at least twenty languages, but I’m not convinced one needs more.

None of my ‘A-list’ languages has given me the kind of benefits I’ve been lucky enough to receive as a result of learning (to varying degrees) Norwegian, Quechua, and Korean.  The first let me run a market stall selling vegetarian snacks for a weekend in Bergen.  The second allowed me to thank my hosts and compliment their cooking when I was hiking through Peru.  The last one has even introduced new English words into my vocabulary, through the local English variant called Konglish.  And the best part is my Canadian & Kiwi friends all understand me when I say “aircon,” or “skinship!”

mark 03.18.11 | 3:18 PM ET

Ha! I learned to speak Tok Pisin while living in Papua New Guinea and though it comes in handy when my wife and I want to have a private conversation….not good for too much else here in the Caribbean. ;-)

GypsyGirl 03.20.11 | 9:07 PM ET

D-List languages, does that stand for daunting… I understand and speak Cherokee (Eastern Band) which is considered a dead language for the most part. However, I met someone of Cherokee decent at a bus station in Chicago and was shocked. He asked about the wolf paw tattoo on my arm, to which I usually give the explanation first, in Cherokee, then in English; but before I could switch over languages he answered me in Cherokee. Small world, eh!
I also can read/translate Germanic runes, and comprehend and read Swedish. Language is a beautiful thing! After spending 7 weeks in Paris, I barely understood much French, but I’m learning more for my return trip.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.