The Polyglot Project – Part One


Ah the failed hobbies, ambitions and various follies of the fickle mind.

It would be true to say that I’ve tried my hand a many things.

Like every girl raised in South Dublin in the nineties, I spent a short spell as an aspiring dancer after seeing Save The Last Dance and another short spell as a Wiccan on account of The Craft. Not physically or spiritually limber enough for either of those, I tried sports. In my first year of secondary school, I made the A Team in the sport of ‘hockey’ (you may have heard of it last week) as a substitute, before being demoted to the B team in second year, the C team in third year, and quitting in fourth.  I turned to debating, full time, which I was actually very good at, probably because, at that time, I was also a real asshole. I then promptly gave up it in college after becoming a decent human being.

Besides being a dancer, a Wiccan, a hockey player and obnoxious, I took it upon myself to insult canvasses with paint from time to time, insult ears with a saxophone, and had an awfully embarrassing (should the footage ever emerge) Transition Year as an aspiring film maker.  Next a vegan, a club-kid, nearly a squatter, not a squatter, a performance artist, a producer, a children’s entertainer, a spoken word poet, a drinker, a smoker, and – finally – a boxer. I even started listening to a boxing podcast (5 Live Boxing with Costello and Bunce. Would recommend).  I now have Achilles Tendonitis and will not be boxing for quite a long time.

But one of the only things I’ve always done consistently, but never thought much of, is attempt to learn languages.  I use the word attempt, because it seems that the process of learning languages is my hobby, not actually using them a whole bunch.

And while all of the languages we learn, even briefly, do stay with us in many parts of our brains and bodies, language fluency needs regular upkeep and affection.  So while I collect languages quickly, I do not always feed and water them consistently.  Fluency tends to wither and fade.

A bullet-pointed history of my multi-lingual exploits –

  • Like nearly all children in the Republic, I studied Irish – not Gaelic – for fourteen years, and a European language (in my case, French) for six years. And like most Irish children, I arrived into adulthood without fluency in either*. So 2007 and 2008 marked a time in my life when I tried to learn Irish in a self-motivated fashion.  This meant night classes at Conradh na Gaeilge, Irish literature, and a glorious hill walking trip with Oideas Gael. This is also the time that I started using my Irish name (I was born a Murray) and eventually changed it by deed poll.
  • The monolingual years – 2008-2012 – were spent in London. I suppose I learnt more about English.
  • In 2013/2014 I was the lucky nanny to an amazing Romanian family. It was my job to teach their son Daniel to speak English and, as a result of this immersion,  I also learnt how to understand a lot of toddler Romanian – all gone now.
  • In 2014/2015 I set my sights on German, for very practical and career-focused reasons. Indeed, I can imagine no other reason for learning German.  I took evening classes, and then I was in a bike crash, which stopped me going to evening classes. The dream cracked when my knee cap did (that sentence was harder for me than it was for you).
  • Early 2017 and it was time for Middle Kurdish. There are multiple Kurdish languages, you ask? Indeed. I can also tell you that Sorani Kurdish is not even the most prominent one, and I started learning it because I am prone to making excellent life choices.  German also resurfaced this year, as I was working in a refugee camp with a lot of Iraqi-Kurdish children and German volunteers.
  • 2017/2018 was my trip to New Zealand, and Te Reo Māori time.  I was tasked with writing trilingual theatre in Irish, Te Reo and English. Another very commercially viable life choice.  I learnt Te Reo from Makyla Curtis first, then from the amazing community leader, Warren Chase.  More on that later.
  • And now we find ourselves diving once more into French.  To explain the sudden interest in French is far too complicated… wait, no it isn’t. I lied about my speaking French in a job interview, then got the job, and had to improve real quick.

And here we are!

My current thinking…

I don’t learn languages compulsively because I am a neurotic nerd who likes to make her own dictionaries, though that is also very much the truth.  I learn languages situationally because I find myself in a multi-lingual place where I need them.

I sometimes need them because it is functional. You try running a creche without being able to say ‘biscuit’ or ‘home time’ or ‘STOP HITTING HAMA!’ to the little people. Or I learn them because it’s inevitable, as with my Romanian friends. Or because it is politically or artistically important, as I believe Kurdish, Irish and Te Reo Māori are.  They all have been, or are being, actively repressed.  I support Te Reo Māori because I support tino rangatiratanga and because my learning the language sends a message to the white Kiwi’s around me about whose land I believe we are standing on.

So if I am collecting these languages because they are useful, it makes sense that they change as my situation changes.  And if my goals are relative (I never attempted to read or write in Kurdish, for example, as I didn’t need to) then polyglotism becomes a lot easier.  And polyglotism is the goal.

I want to be a speaker of many languages and a master of none because polyglotism is an antidote to anxiety, an exercise in patience, humility, and a good sucker punch to the ego.  Polyglotism is these things because it is an impossible aspiration – a multi-level video game you cannot win. It is not possible to know even one language fully. Never in a human life. And so it is not possible to know two, three, four fully – and it is never, ever possible to know them all. As Nicki Minaj, my most frequently referenced academic source, would put it – second languages son you.

Learning a language makes you into a child again.  A lot of people find that mortifying.

I do not find it mortifying because I do not find childhood mortifying because I am no longer an asshole, if you remember.  I admire children and their immense linguistic capacity. I do not believe that this capacity dims irreparably over time, as others do.  I think our ability to respect childhood dims over time, I believe that our insistence in an adulthood that is impervious to core change increases, as does our adult fear of being wordless, therefore defenceless.  We believe in the cult of our own adult selves more as we age, and we become boring and lazy and crap at listening to other people, maybe because we suspect them of also being in a self-centred cult-of-one.

There is nothing that you lose by playing with language, or by learning more languages (I would die happy if I could convince white New Zealand of that fact).   You lose nothing.  Other than your ability to insist that YOU ARE, IN FACT, IN FULL CONTROL AND WEARING A TIE. Ironically, that insistence is a manifestation of the aspect of your personality that is the most petulant, and juvenile – the part of you that no one admires.

What you will receive from learning languages are, in no particular order –

  • A better ability to practically navigate the world as a traveller and citizen
  • A hugely enhanced ability to build relationships with people from other countries and cultures, who currently think you’re an arrogant twot
  • Access to the lore, music, ecology, philosophy, story, history, humour, and spirituality that are contained in a language
  • A better knowledge of what is on the menu before you accidentally order something containing dairy. I know you don’t like dairy – it bloats you.
  • If you care about little things like peace building, reconciliation and conflict resolution, linguistic diversity helps immeasurably with that.
  • Discovering beauty, as well as meaning.  We all accept that English is a more effective language for global commerce than Irish.  Could it not follow that Irish might be better at something else in its own right, too? I think anyone who has glimpsed the sheer breadth of native Irish vocabulary can attest that it captures things that are indefinable (or boring) in translation. Prove me wrong!
  • On that, languages make you funnier, in more ways and places, more often. Did you know it is an acceptable German insult to call someone a plug-socket inseminator?
  • Finally, foreign languages give you access to knew concepts that, quite simply, do not exist in English, and yet are observably true and real. Contemporary English compels us to specify a binary gender for the third person singular (he/she) in such a way that non-binary individuals struggle to know what to call themselves.  This struggle is not necessary, and doesn’t exist in many languages. If ever your Anglophone friend practically flips a table at the idea of ”’new”” gender-neutral pronouns, remind them that many, many languages have gotten on fine without gendered third person singulars, at all.  Neither Sorani Kurdish not Te Reo Māori use them, and those are just two languages that I’ve encountered personally.

I haven’t listed everything good that language learning does here (post-colonial healing, for example, is a whole other blog).

But I do know that Anglophones, of all the linguistic demographics, find the benefits of polyglotism hardest to grasp.

I beg you, English speakers of my acquaintance, let’s break that mould.

I’m looking for the French, German, Kurdish and Te Reo curious minds out there who want to try being less boring with me, and aspire to have good conversations with old timers in far flung corners of the world.



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