Sunday, December 30, 2012

Adventures in Multilingualism

Writing only in one language is so passé.

There's an idea in programming circles that one should be continuously learning new languages, say, one new one a year. I agree, but not so much with programming languages as spoken ones. Despite extending my programming language repertoire with some Typescript recently (if you’d even call that a full-blown language) spoken languages are more interesting to me right now. European ones. If language be food then these days I'm enjoying a main course of Spanish, picking at some Greek mezes, and reheating French leftovers.

As a kid I learned Irish, Latin and French at school. Because my parents took in Mexican students during the 70's and 80's I picked up a little Spanish as a teenager. Studying photography in Dublin in the 90's, we had a German language module for some reason. And when I married a feisty Zantean, I found myself absorbing (ab-Zorba-ing?) Greek passively at the family dinner table. All these languages in my head, some resentfully imposed on me, some enthusiastically embraced by me, had nowhere to go and no-one to speak them. Until recently I wasn't interested in learning any new language or keeping up the ones I knew, being of the mind as I was that it was a waste of time learning how to say the same thing in different ways. New ideas in science and programming were what mattered, not asking someone the time in French.

'Multilingual', by Shaun Chapman

At the same time I've exercised my language muscles intermittently over the years simply by dint of being such a fan of foreign language cinema. When Luis Buñuel died in 1983 a retrospective of his movies was shown on BBC which as a sponge for foreign esoterica I watched on an old black and white TV in awe. Truffaut died the following year; the years passed, all while I clocked up an impressive list of movies watched from all corners of the world without ever parlaying this cineaste activity into any meaningful progress vis-à-vis learning or improving a language.

For some reason, in the last couple of years I've slowly come around to the virtues of finally doing Spanish properly, doing Greek for the first time, and while I'm at it brushing up on my rusty, half-forgotten French. I don't know why this is; why the language bug has bitten. It may well be because since becoming a programmer in Brisbane I've found myself immersed in a cacophonous parliament of foreign-born colleagues, especially at Dialog, and when on a team with Readifarians of +Readify. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing workmates speak a confusion of languages all around me, and that has had a sort of liberating effect on me from the suffocating monopoly of English one finds here in Australia.

I’m foreign-born too by the way: foreign-born twice over in fact. Irish but born in England. I’m obviously not comparing my situation directly to that of many of the people I've worked with who speak English as a second language, but at the same time I believe that if you weren't born here (and I’m going to generalise this observation in a ridiculous sweep to apply to every country in the world) then you’re different, your language is different, and you are always somewhere on the 'different' scale. "We really have everything in common with America nowadays", said Oscar Wilde sometime in the late 19th century, "except, of course, language." It's the same for a Dubliner who comes to Australia: there are plenty of phrases you have to learn that are unheard of in Ireland, and vice versa, of course. Plenty of friendly enquiries about your accent, plenty of mystified looks when you say that a developer meeting was 'good craic, with decent heads.' Sensibly, you learn to stop talking like that if you want to get on with Australians, never mind kiwis and Indians.

One of the effects of studying languages like I've been doing is to have new-found respect for people I've worked with - people like +Adrian Budiman from Indonesia, +Sandra Palacio from Columbia, +Mehdi Khalili from Iran, +Paulo Alexandre Ogliani from Brazil, +Dmitry Kryuchkov from Russia, +John Wilson from South Africa - who are doing what I do, usually much better, through the fog of a second language. How do they do it?

Only joking about John, by the way: South Africans of course speak English and he actually has a euphonious, 'nice' South African accent. Some of the other South Africans I've met on the other hand sound like 'District 9'. "To this day the accents of Australian, New Zealand and South African English have a distinct family resemblance, derived from the shared experience of class emigration." writes Robert McCrum in Globish. It took me a while to distinguish the Aussie and kiwi accents, but the South African one is quite distinct from either of those to my ears.

Phrases and words that have a different meaning in Australia to the one I’m used to include 'ordinary' (poor quality), 'yeah no' (normally employed separately since they are mutually exclusive responses), of course ‘root’, and just for good measure 'three fifths of a poofteenth' (a trifling amount). My friend Paulo told me he found the hardest part of the language to be phrasal verbs, like 'pay out' (criticise), or ‘stand down’ (sack/fire). While it might look to someone struggling with English that English speakers have it easy, some phrases are what the French call faux amis, false friends, because they look like one thing and act like another.

So for all my joi de parler, my polyglotism (such an ugly word for a nice thing), how does multilingualism affect your writing if you’re a blogger like me? Maybe not at all. After all, anyone can translate anything you write into just about any tongue under the sun using Google Translate or some similar type of app or browser plug-in in an instant. Speaking of Google Translate, I use it all the time and I find it to be one of the marvels of the computing age. As far as I’m concerned, cloud machine translation, in more or less real time, on your phone, Chavooon!, is mankind harvesting the fruit of its ingenuity in spectacular form - one of those boons you get for just sticking around long enough and buying enough devices and computers over the years, the stuff of our parents' imagination, but for us just another app.

Back to the point: why write in anything other than English? After all, a majority of the web’s content is written in English. But the foreign language internet is rapidly expanding, particularly Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Apparently it mightn’t be a bad thing to prime your content with some foreign language version to optimise for all the non-English people who search for your goodness. But I’m not really interested in any practical reason for any of this, or at least, not in any obvious, immediate sense. The most compelling reason I can offer for learning Spanish, French, Mandarin or Greek is this: you have a life of the mind, we all have. It has boundaries, they all have. When you start to think in foreign languages you expand those boundaries. Can you think of a better reason to do something? That’s it. Cést tout. And writing in those languages just takes it to the next level, and moreover is easy to break into using Google+ in particular.

If you’re worried about alienating what small audience you have on Twitter, Blogger, Google Plus, etc. by your experimental ramblings then like I say I recommend Google+. It’s the only big network where you can filter on your side, by sharing only to people you choose to: sympa friends, the language Meetup group you’ve joined, connections you know who aren't going to uncircle you because you've turned into Anthony Burgess. Twitter and Blogger don’t have any such 'supply-side' filtering. Everything you tweet or blog goes out there, to all your followers/subscribers. So, set up a G+ circle for your, say, French bons mots, write something à propos in French then share it without making it public: share just to that particular circle to keep it low-key.

Something else to consider is following a newspaper like El País or Le Monde on Google+ and comment on a post just to be part of the conversation. There are spirited and (generally) well-informed and polite conversations on most posts, and let's face it, no-one is ever going to judge you too harshly for a badly-phrased comment. The day you get your first +1 for a foreign-language comment is a red-letter day for a would-be multilinguist.