In recent times, I’ve been tossing up whether I should try to learn some basic German. The thing that’s prompting my temptation is that I keep encountering German-language posts on social media, and with my current (completely non-existent) knowledge of the language these are impenetrable walls of text. I’m kind of wondering how much German I would have to learn for these to start to make sense to me.
In contrast, you see, I can read short posts in most of the Romance languages fairly easily. I’ve learnt Spanish, at least to basic competency, and have studied four of the others at least at some point. Not so much extremely slang-filled or jokey posts, but posts where the intent is to inform or share something or express an opinion, yes. I can’t really understand audio if not in Spanish (and also sometimes in Spanish… I mean have you heard the way Dominicans speak), but that’s not really necessary to scroll through Twitter or Mastodon or what-have-you. When the focus is on reading, I do alright.
I wouldn’t say that the only reason I’m interested in German is to have an easier time reading some social media posts. I do also have an interest in the history of the English language, and I’ve always found it cool finding similarities (like cognates or entire calqued phrases) between English and Romance languages; German would be a whole new world of similarities. There’s also a lot of great cultural output in German – books, TV shows and the like – although I’d probably have to reach a really high level in the language to get any more out of them than English translations/subtitles would already provide. Still, it’s not like I need German for professional reasons or anything like that. It would mainly be out of interest.
And I’ll admit that there are a lot of languages that I’d learn “out of interest” if I had infinite time to do so. I’ve dabbled in Indonesian before (and never got very far). Chinese or Arabic would be interesting if I thought I had the fortitude for a language very difficult for English-speakers. A little closer to home (in that these are all Indo-European languages) would be Russian, Persian or Hindi. All of them would be interesting, but of course, I don’t have infinite time.
Recently (by which I mean in the last couple of years), I’ve mainly been focusing on consolidating my Spanish, because my speaking and writing had been “interfered with” somewhat by my studying other Romance languages. I ended up deciding on a new strategy, which was to focus exclusively on Spanish out of the Romance languages and only resume practice of a different one if I actually booked a holiday to Brazil, Italy or wherever (or needed one of them for some other reason). So then I tried dabbling in Indonesian, because I have Indonesian friends… but I ended up struggling to persist with it because even though the language is relatively simple, as languages go, it was just overwhelming having to memorise every word from scratch, with no (or not many) cognates to help me.
German, obviously, shares a lot more cognates with English than Indonesian. But, it’s also grammatically a lot more complex. I might end up in a state where every time I practise German, I long for the simplicity of Indonesian, and every time I practise Indonesian I miss the number of cognates in German 😂
Other languages I’ve dabbled in include Esperanto and its (superior, in my opinion) derivative Ido. I find these interesting because the grammars are simple but provide awesome flexibility. Sometimes I find myself writing stories and just wishing English had the flexible word construction of a language like Ido (and English is actually pretty flexible!). But, they (especially Ido) are hard to practise in a fun way because there’s not that many resources for them. They’re also similar enough to Romance languages like Spanish that some cross-contamination definitely tends to occur when I try dividing my attention. Still, if we’re talking about languages I’d like to dabble in…
A sad fact, when it comes to language-learning, is that not only is “a jack of all trades is a master of none”, but “a jack of all trades is probably not even barely competent in any of them”. When I was studying Spanish at uni, I was very strict with myself: no dabbling in any other language because I actually wanted to get beyond the “superficial knowledge” stage and be able to speak in Spanish. And I succeeded! My Spanish could definitely be better (I feel like it’s only monolingual people who think “speaking a language” is just a binary, zero/perfection thing) but I can understand Spanish-only web content and I can have conversations in the language, when twelve years ago I didn’t know any Spanish at all (maybe “uno, dos, tres”…). But I wouldn’t have achieved that if I’d been trying to study multiple languages the whole time. On the other hand, if all you want is some superficial knowledge, some basics to get around on holiday, or passive understanding, then dabbling is fine. It all depends on what your goals are, I suppose.
To that end, the language that I really want to focus on maintaining is Spanish. I wouldn’t mind knowing enough German to understand social media posts, enough Indonesian to have basic conversations, or enough Ido to… uh, well, try writing things (?) but realistically, learning them would be dabbling. Good thing we have the internet, and free services like Duolingo, so I can get my feet wet with different languages without having to make too much of an investment 😅