The late ’80s, Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. I’m sitting in my Form 1 classroom, probably swinging my legs in typical restlessness, as the teacher – whose name and face, sadly, I can no longer recall – explains Maori vocabulary, or grammar, or phrases. Truth is, I don’t remember paying much attention in Maori class at all, though I’m sure I earned decent marks. Despite having just hit double digits in age, I was confident in my assurance that studying Maori was “useless”, and far more interested in learning French, a language you could actually speak in other countries, including Canada, my other homeland. So interested, in fact, that I took a book out of the school library and began to teach myself basic French – la maison, la rue, le stylo, if I remember rightly.
This is my first memory of studying a second language beyond the back of the cereal box, and compared to many language geeks, I was a late bloomer: no bilingual household, no immersion program, not even any second language study, other than Maori, in elementary/primary school. And yet it kicked off a hobby – some might say an obsession – that saw me study French, as well as correspondence Spanish, in high school; take classes in those two plus four other languages in university, and add three more in grad school. Four if you count Old Church Slavonic, and six if you count dabbling in New Testament Greek and Albanian.
Now, eight years after abandoning a PhD program in Slavic Linguistics to go into journalism and the magazine world, and two years after leaving full-time work to go freelance, I finally feel I have breathing room to return to my language and linguistics background and merge it into my writing career. As a travel writer and as a traveller, I’ve been able to use my languages to explore countries and meet locals in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with just English. I’ve also witnessed a growing global awareness of the value of language diversity and revivals of local languages that are very much a departure from 20th-century nationalism – at the same time as more and more languages die off. But most important for the fate of our global linguistic heritage, the internet has revolutionized – and that’s not too strong a word – language learning and communication. Technology is giving us unprecedented access to the world’s languages, and tools to help us learn and share them.
If I could go back to that Maori classroom, I’d tell that little girl to pay more attention. Sure, Maori may not be “useful” anywhere outside New Zealand, but it’s playing a growing role in the country’s culture, besides the fact that understanding Maori helps you understand the meanings of all those long Kiwi place names – and even of similar words on other Polynesian islands. And a language needs speakers, even second-language ones, for it to stay alive and relevant, as well as support from governments, education systems and the culture at large.
So kia ora and welcome to my language blog, a documentation of my explorations of language learning, multilingualism and language policy in Canada and around the world. I hope it will come to be useful, interesting, informative, all those things good writing is meant to be – and fun, as well. Like language should be.
Photo by Br3nda on Flickr