To Love or Loathe when Learning a Language?

Steve Kaufmann at The Linguist thinks all you need is love when learning a language:

Language learning is like falling in love. In fact you have to be in love to learn a language well. I mean in love with the language. You have to have a love affair with the language. You do not have to marry the language. You can have an affair and then move on to another language after a period of time. But while you are learning the language you have to be in love with it. And you will learn faster if you are faithful to the language while you are studying it.

So Kaufmann decides that “language learning is like falling in love,” but why is a second language so difficult to learn? Lee M. Hollander, translator of the Poetic Edda (1962), once claimed that “language study will be its own reward.”[1]

An aesthetic rule to cull from Kaufmann’s quote might be that learning a human language requires nearly as much devotion as loving a human being.  For curiosity’s sake, one might emend First Corinthians 1:5–8 to read:

[Language] suffers long and is kind; [language] does not envy; [language] does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [Language] never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.

But can one hate a language and use that hatred as a medium to learn what is despised?

Hatred requires a bit of obsession. (It is an occasional ingredient in erudition.) And although one can cite that scene in The House of Garibaldi Street (1975)—where immediately after capture Adolf Eichmann begins reciting the Torah in the original Hebrew to his Mossad apprehenders—Bookbread has yet to come across an example of a person loathing a language in order to learn it. Perhaps that’s why Kaufmann’s analogy seems so appealing:

Just as when you are in love, you want to and need to spend as much time as possible with the object of your love. You want to hear its voice and read its thoughts. You want to learn more about it, the many words and phrases that it uses to express itself. You think of the language wherever you are. You start to observe the object of your love closely. You notice all the little things it does, you become familiar with its peculiar behaviour patterns. You breathe it. You hear its voice. You feel it. You get to know it better and better, naturally.

Meanwhile, some officials involved with the European Union might not hate the English language, but they definitely aren’t in love with it:

“After the enlargement of 2004, we have seen a clear trend to privilege English-mother tongue officials in the press room, with the risk of preferring language criteria in the selection of spokespersons rather than competence or communication skills,” said Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association (IPA/API).

“The linguistic predominance of English can have cultural and political impacts,” he added, explaining that “cultural pluralism is at risk” if the trend is not reversed.

While over at Atticus Bookstore and Cafe (which stands near some new educational start-up called “Yale”) folks might not necessarily love or hate the English language, but they certainly want it put in its proper place:

Atticus Bookstore and Cafe recently issued a policy stating that English should be the only language spoken on the floor and behind the counter. “Spanish is allowed in the prep area, the dishwasher area and the lower level. Let’s make our customers feel welcome and comfortable,” the policy states, according to New Haven Workers Association, a group of activists who said employees gave them a copy….

Employers are allowed to enact an English-only policy if it is needed to promote the safe or efficient operation of their business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Examples include communications with customers, co-workers or supervisors who only speak English, emergency situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety and cooperative work assignments in which a common language is needed to promote efficiency.

Hollander seems to have arrived at a sensible solution long before the current calamity of European unification and coffee shops in Connecticut:

Who would dare to insist that German or French or Spanish will be more important for world intercommunication than, say, Chinese or Japanese or Russian? But, since real mastery of any one of these requires long years of arduous study, and since even language people are beginning to realize that a great many more things clamor for our study and training that did yesterday, we may well throw up our hands in dismay and turn to a synthetic language or to Simplified English for practical usefulness and easier mastery for the average individual.[2]

[1] Hollander, Lee M. “Some Reflections on Language Training.” The German Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Mar., 1940), pp. 75.
[2] Ibid. pp. 72.