Are Romance languages (except for Romanian) useless for an aspiring polyglot?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

One of the best places to find polyglots and aspiring polyglots online is the How to Learn Any Language forums. Aspiring polyglots do not all learn languages for the same reasons, but in general when one finds someone that speaks, let's say, six or more languages, the reasons for that may be:

1) Grew up in a multilingual environment / moved from country to country as a child / some other environmental reason. These people are not so common on the forums since they simply become multilingual without necessarily having an interest in languages.

2) Wants to learn a lot of languages in order to talk with a lot of people, travel in as many countries as possible, etc. This type of aspiring polyglot may love languages in and of themselves, but tends to focus on 'practical' languages.

3) Wants to learn a lot of languages in order to learn as much about the languages themselves as possible. This type of aspiring polyglot is not really interested in the practical value of a language in terms of speakers or number of countries or GDP, but rather the languages themselves.

AP#3 is what this post is about. This type of language learner will tend to look at languages in a broader way, as a member of a family rather than isolated entities. For AP#3 it might be more worthwhile to learn Occitan than either Spanish or French, since both grammatically and lexically Occitan tends to resemble each of the two more than Spanish or French resemble each other. AP#3 might also prefer to learn Kazakh over Turkish, since Kazakh would provide just as much insight into Turkic languages as Turkish itself but also teach him the Cyrillic alphabet. AP#3 is more interested in techniques to understand as much as possible as quickly as possible, more interested in the effect a language has on his or her mind than any practical economic value.

So let's say you're AP#3, learning languages is like candy to you, and you want to spend the next few years learning as many languages as possible. At the same time, you would also love to learn languages that give you a partial proficiency in other languages that are related to them. Also, you will not be traveling to any one country in the meantime - you're going to stay in your home country in the meantime and learn through language exchanges, textbooks and whatever you can find online. The question is:

is it even worth learning a Romance language?

Consider: thanks to Latin and French, pretty much every non-Romance language in Europe, and even many outside of Europe, will give you some insight into one Romance language or another. Since you're starting with English you have an advantage, because:

English itself is a bit of a bridge language, with a Germanic base but a ton of Latin and French influence.

Let's say your first language is going to be a Germanic language. If you go with German you'll be learning a language with much less French influence, but you'll still end up learning a few hundred words that aren't present in English. Portier (doorman), Abonnement (subscription), Garderobe (wardrobe), and even some words like Chance which mean the same thing but are pronounced in the same way as French ('shahns'). Luxembourgish has an even greater French influence. See this page for some examples of French vocabulary in German.

Even Turkish has a few thousand words from Romance languages, most of them French:

Persian has a lot of French/Latin words too, so does Bulgarian, and so on. Even when moving on to Semetic languages, AP#3 could go with Maltese, where approximately half of the vocabulary is from Italian/Sicilian. Unless you are concentrating on languages well outside of Europe, there really doesn't seem to be a way to escape picking up thousands and thousands of Romance vocabulary, largely thanks to Latin and later French political influence. So would AP#3 not be wasting time in the beginning by spending a year or two or three on major Romance languages that will become familiar over time through other languages anyway?

Romanian is the one exception here, as it is the one Romance language that doesn't really fit in with the rest. Having the definite article on the end and keeping a case system makes Romanian tough to follow, so it's the only one that really requires a good amount of active study to understand. In fact, Romanian feels like the Romance language that took Classical Latin the most seriously. The others diverged with time, discarded the case system, went from three genders to two, ending up as languages that still look fairly Latin but really don't feel the same at all. Romanian, on the other hand, looks fairly different and has a large Slavic/Hungarian influence, but still feels a lot like Classical Latin in the way it is used. And because it is a Romance language, it fits in very nicely with our AP#3 here - this aspiring polyglot will have to actively study Romanian in order to understand it, but at the same time this will provide yet another indirect window into the other Romance languages.

At the end of all of this our AP#3 will end up with a messy yet glorious set of thousands of Romance words in his head, and if he gets the chance to live in a country like France or Italy or Spain or Portugal, properly learning the language there will not be a matter of starting over, it will simply be a matter of combing through the vocabulary he already has, and adapting it to the language people speak on the street. It's probably about the same feeling a person who speaks MSA (standard Arabic) and one dialect feels when moving to another Arabic-speaking country, in fact.

So, is there even any reason to spend time learning French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian in the beginning for an aspiring polyglot that is only concerned with familiarizing himself with as many languages as possible?

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