On Learning Languages

The Economist has a nice little write-up on learning languages, and which ones take the longest to learn:

The difficulty in learning a foreign language lies not only in its inherent complexity. Languages are complex in different ways (though all are learnable by infants). The main reason a language is hard is that it is different from your own.


What was most fascinating to me was this chart (why should this chart be titled “My Aunt’s Pen” in French? The Economist has some truly enjoyable puns, but this one is a mystery to me):


I speak three languages fluently: Hindi, Marathi and English. I can now read French, and can write it reasonably well. But my attempts at speaking French have so far been consistently disastrous. I have spent some time on Duolingo learning German and Italian as well, and this bit resonated:

“If you want to learn a language just for fun, start with Swedish. If you want to rack up an impressive number, stay in Europe.”

Quite a few words were common in these three languages, and as the Economist article points out, there are some pleasant surprises that await given the existence of the proto-Indo-European language. My favorite example is the word “himbeer” which means raspberry in German. Literally the berry that is available in winter/snow (“him”). Once you make the connection with the Himalayas, many other delights await.

And that takes us to the excellent Duolingo blog, which comes up with some very informative posts. One of these in the recent past, for example, dealt with the question of which words (if any) are the same across many (if not all) languages.

Before you read on, spend some time in trying to figure out if there are any such words.

So there’s pineapple, or ananas. The same blogpost also tells us that at one point of time, the word apple was a generic word for any fruit. Which, I suppose, makes the fact that potatoes in France are called the “apple of the land” slightly less puzzling. Oranges almost makes the list, as do “taxi” and “tomato“.

But the two words that were absolute champions?

Coffee, and chocolate. There’s a fun follow-up post based on community feedback, if you’re interested. But a fun way to learn more about the world we live in is to learn as many languages as possible. It expands your vocabulary, allows you to make connections across languages (and therefore cultures), and provides the kind of exercise for your brain that probably won’t come from any other endeavor.

Bonus: an immensely enjoyable blog post about languages, colors, and specifically the color blue.