Being a global linguist for fun (and just a little profit)

Languages are Hard - Making Voice Assistants Speak Many Languages

The numbers have changed a bit since 𝑁𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑣𝑒 𝑇𝑜𝑛𝑔𝑢𝑒𝑠 was published by Charles Berlitz in 1982, but the principle remains sound.

Among the several thousand world languages, only 101 count over 1 million speakers. Of these, the fourteen most important in number of speakers are, in approximate order:

Chinese
English
Hindi/Urdu
Russian
Spanish
Japanese
German
Indonesian
Portuguese
French
Arabic
Bengali
Malay
Italian

All of these have at least 50 million speakers, including dialects. Chinese is definitely the number-one language, with almost 1 billion speakers. English, second by several lengths—with approximately 300 million native speakers is nevertheless much more widely spoken over the world’s surface than Chinese. Perhaps 200 million additional speakers around the globe use English as a second language.

Since most of the world’s population either speaks or is familiar with one of the fourteen languages listed above, or with one of three other widely spoken languages—Dutch, Greek, Swahili-or with a language in either the Scandinavian, the Turkic, or the Slavic group, it is possible for an individual with the time and inclination to be able to communicate with the great majority of the inhabitants of this planet by learning to speak these 20 languages.

Berlitz, Charles, Native Tongues, 1982, Grosset and Dunlap

It’s an interesting concept for someone who might want to travel the world and speak to just about anyone.

I regret that the days ahead are fewer than those behind; I would need another lifetime to master all 20 of these, but I have attained conversational facility in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian and I have made progress in Japanese, Mandarin, and Arabic, along with a bunch of others not on this list like Irish, Norwegian, Croatian, Farsi, and Hebrew.

Some people have great musical skills. Others can do artwork that will knock your eyes out. Or write captivating stories, or all sorts of talents. This one is mine; I’m neither boasting nor do I apologize, and I’m not even a hyperglot like so many others in history. Learning languages was a career, (that’s where the little bit of profit comes in) and also became a hobby. For me, it’s sheer enjoyment.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual
Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual
Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A: American

I can’t count the number of times while traveling for work or enjoyment that I encountered people who were delighted that an American would take the trouble to learn a bit of their language. It has generated more goodwill than I could describe.¹ Even a few phrases will usually get a smile.

There is, on that note, one other way to get the natives of another country to like you: Enjoy their food. That’s a subject for another essay, but I can share that my stock in the books of the good people of Kinshasa rose precipitously when the learned that I thoroughly enjoyed their fufu, plantains fried in red palm oil, and chicken moambe.

If you’re going to travel, make the effort. Even a rudimentary effort will pay large dividends. For ease of acquisition, [and I’m not a paid shill] I recommend the Pimsleur courses, many of which are available through local libraries. Listen at home, or in your car, or in the great outdoors and by the end of 10 lessons (or 30, for more popular languages) you’ll have a feel for the language and be able to produce and understand some common useful phrases. Another useful site is Omniglot, and there are some great apps out there – Duolinguo is very popular.

Just do it.

Il vecchio lupo ha parlato.


¹ Note: In Paris it doesn’t matter how well you speak French, they’ll be rude to you anyway.

The Seegers on the Road

Today is John Steinbeck’s 112th birthday – or would have been, if he weren’t dead. But some pictures that ran across my Facebook feed this morning seemed somehow relevant.

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May 1921. Washington, D.C. “Professor Charles Seeger, a composer, is a brother of Alan Seeger, the war poet. His wife is a distinguished violinist.” Little Pete Seeger, 2 years old, and family along with their camping rig. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.

The Seeger family  More on this intriguing bit of ephemera was written about in the Washington Post (text and image found at Shorpy):

Washington Post, May 22, 1921.

TRAVEL AND LIVE IN AN AUTOMOBILE

Charles Seeger, Wife and Three Sons See World While Living Outdoors

LIKE WANDERING MINSTRELS

Mrs. Seeger Famed as Violinist. Husband Professor of Music In California.

Bound for wherever they happen to stop, paying no attention to daylight saving or other forms of time, and spreading music wherever they go, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Seeger, once of the University of California and now “wandering minstrels” of the world at large, are encamped at Rock Creek park, their home an itinerant Ford and a home-made trailer. They are accompanied by their three little boys.

Mr. and Mrs. Seeger, the latter known in musical circles as Constance Edson Seeger, are taking the boys to museums and places of interest wherever they stop, and the two [older] boys are learning to play the violin.

Their Profession in Music.

“We are trying to solve the problem of educating three boys, and at the same time lead a worth-while outdoor life,” said Mr. Seeger yesterday. Mr. Seeger says that they got the idea while they were at the University of California, where he was head of the music department for seven years after graduating from Harvard and studying music in Europe and where Mrs. Seeger gave violin recitals following her graduation from the New York Institute of Musical Art and a course at the Conservatory of Paris.

The Seegers came here from Richmond and to that city from Pinehurst, N.C., where they spent some time. In addition to the three boys, Charles, 8; John, 6, and Peter, not yet 2 [actually, he had just turned 2], they have taken with them Miss Marion Brown, whom they picked up at Pinehurst and who tutors the children and cares for them while their parents are giving concerts.

The Seeger “home” is a house of five and a half feet in width by fourteen feet in length, and contains all the comforts of home, including a sewing machine, a portable organ and games for the boys. It even has a front porch, which slides under the trailer while traveling.

Going to New England.

The Seegers spent the winter at Pinehurst and are now en route to the New England States for the summer, expecting to go back South when the winter approaches again. Increasing rents make no difference in their lives, as a camping place is always available.

Mr. Seeger is the brother of the famous war poet Alan Seeger, whose “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” written shortly before he died, has become immortal.

Mr. and Mrs. Seeger gave a concert lecture at the Corcoran Art Gallery last night.

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May 23, 1921. Washington, D.C. “Professor Charles Louis Seeger and family.” Charles Seeger, wife Constance Edson Seeger and their 2-year-old son Pete, of future folkie fame. National Photo Co. Collection glass negative.

Another image of the itinerant Seegers. These images have nothing directly to do with Steinbeck, but there’s a distinctly “Grapes of Wrath” feel about their living style in these pictures. They weren’t destitute like the Joads, but my mind couldn’t help but make the connection. There is part of me that would love to be able to live on the road… as long as I had a comfortable motor home with some bookshelf space and the funds to support such a lifestyle.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Rice Bubbles and Weeties

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If you were a Kiwi in 1958, you didn’t know about Rice Krispies unless you were familiar with American produce. You got Rice Bubbles. And Breakfast of Champions? Well, that was Weeties.

One of my favorite parts of traveling to a different country – especially one where they speak English, and things are not muddled by a language barrier – is shopping, and seeing the differences in products offered. It’s like being in Europe without having to carry your phrasebook. I remember being in Ireland with the family and staying for a week at Abbeyville Cottage in Cill Mocheallog, Co Ciarraí [1] – we went shopping for provender and brought home all sorts of wonderful new products that we had never tried, such as Weetabix™, for which I developed an undying love, or Aero™ bars, which despite being heavy on air and light on chocolate were a delight… just because they’re so different. Same thing with TimTams™ from Australia, or Scott’s Porage Oats from the UK or… well, the list goes on forever. Everything you’re familiar with at home has a different name, a slightly different flavor, and it’s wonderful.

If I were Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, I’d take a few lifetimes off from insulting people to spend a few decades in every country and culture of the world (a few centuries for Japan, just because.) There’s nothing I enjoy more than getting to know another people, getting inside their heads and learning about their languages, foods, ways, and customs; there’s just not the time to do that as a tourist, and just not the experience to do it as a student.

Being a citizen of the world at heart is tough, especially when resources are tight – but I do all I can from my armchair; let me tell you about Azalea Adair.

She was a product of the old South, gently nurtured in the sheltered life. Her learning was not broad, but was deep and of splendid originality in its somewhat narrow scope. She had been educated at home, and her knowledge of the world was derived from inference and by inspiration. Of such is the precious, small group of essayists made. Whle she talked to me I kept brushing my fingers, trying, unconsciously, to rid them guiltily of the absent dust from the half-calf backs of Lamb, Chaucer, Hazlitt, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Hood. She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much–oh, so much too much–of real life…

  “On the surface,” said Azalea Adair. “I have traveled many times around the world in a golden airship wafted on two wings – print and dreams. I have seen (on one of my imaginary tours) the Sultan of Turkey bowstring with his own hands one of his wives who had uncovered her face in public. I have seen a man in Nashville tear up his theatre tickets because his wife was going out with her face covered – with rice powder. In San Francisco’s Chinatown I saw the slave girl Sing Yee dipped slowly, inch by inch, in boiling almond oil to make her swear she would never see her American lover again. She gave in when the boiling oil had reached three inches above her knee.[2]

This is beauty; this is language to chew on; this is imagination. This is what people did when travel was prohibitively expensive and  television had not been invented and the most exciting form of entertainment was to pull out the stereopticon and marvel over the strange ways and beauties of other lands and other cultures.

Great Pyramids

Nowadays, for the most part, we lack the kind of language that was common in O. Henry’s day – but in exchange we have the Internet, and that is just about the next best thing to being there in person.

Great-wall-of-china

The Great Wall of China

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] With many thanks to Mary Slattery for her hospitality!
[2] From “A Municipal Report” by O. Henry.