The Prison of the Single Language

Let me say, first of all, that I don’t write this post as an accomplished polyglot who’s preaching to everybody else. I’ve studied many languages, but there isn’t yet a single one outside of English that I can read without great effort (though I’m in the process of trying to change that). I write as someone who has stood on the border of being able to read and understand other languages, and who has glimpses what richness the life of a polyglot could hold.

Life in one language feels normal and feels comfortable. In my life, pretty much everyone speaks the same language as I do, and there’s plenty of material to read in my own language, and so learning to understand a second language as well seems as though it would be a pleasant but superfluous extravagance.

However, I have a suspicion that that’s a feeling which turns out to be entirely illusory once a second language has really been grasped.

Let’s take German. I began learning German with the sense that it might someday allow me to read some of Nietzsche’s writing in the original language, and that seemed like a good enough reason. Also, German seemed like it would be easier for an English speaker to learn than Russian or Mandarin, the two languages I was studying before German, and so it felt like it would be a nice way to give myself a little break.

When I was a few months into learning German, I began to realize that some of my friends who have gone further down the academic path than I have were wishing that they could take some time to study German, because of the scholarly works that would become available to them, and honestly I felt guilty because I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the language at the time. But with the passing of weeks I started to realize some of the resources that would be available to me when I became comfortable with German, and so I began to get a little bit excited about some of the scholarly literature that will be available for me to read once I have more German.

And then as time has continued to pass, my excitement has grown and my ambitions have expanded. I could read the fierce debates of the German enlightenment. I could read the phenomenologists, and the Frankfurt school. Maybe I could read poetry, novels, plays, great works of the past.

There are so many things written in German that are either untranslated or only available in translation at a very steep price. To be able to swim freely in the literature of the German language, without needing to rely on translations and English language resources, is the advantage of the person who is not trapped in a single language.

If there was ever a time for knowing only one language, it is now, and it is English. The vast array of writings and translations available, especially with the aid of the internet, is beyond what any other language has ever had, I think. And yet even still, there are intellectual riches beyond our linguistic borders that we can hardly dream of before we catch a glimpse of them.

Read good books in English. But also focus on learning other languages. That combination will lead to a powerful intellectual armory over time.

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