Why I Learn Foreign Languages

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My mother has kept a framed copy of this photo of my grandfather in her studio for as long as I can remember. Beside it, she has a similar photo of herself taken when she was a few years older, also on a horse. She wanted to get one of me to complete the series, but I was never particularly keen on horses.

A few years ago, we found another copy of the same photo of my grandfather. It was in considerably worse shape, but on the back was a short handwritten message in Yiddish.

In English, it reads:
I send you my son. Later, I will send you everyone.

From what I understand, my great-grandmother could not read or write, which means this must have written by my great-grandfather. My grandfather looks to be around 4 or 5 here, so the photo was taken (and these words written) within a year of the end of World War I.

There is something eerie about touching your fingers to the penmarks made almost a century ago by a man whom you never met, but to whom you owe your existence nevertheless. Even more extraordinary than seeing and touching the words is being able read them and understand them. Two simple sentences are all it takes to make my studying Yiddish (laborious and solitary as it is) worthwhile.

I’m a language nerd. I love studying grammar. To me, it’s like structural engineering. No two languages use the same assembly of struts and joists and beams and girders to construct the same thought. I have no patience for naturalistic language instruction, which places greater emphasis on developing conversational skills rather than memorizing rules. I’d rather stare at charts of verb conjugations than start by learning how to say, “Hello. How are you?” But it’s helpful to have reminders of the real reason that we study languages. Behind all the declensions and conjugations, there are people. Learning a language is about connecting with the people who speak it, whether in person or generations removed on paper.

It’s easy for native English speakers to forget the power that a language can have, because our language is not just ours. In one form or another, English belongs to the whole world, and no matter where on Earth you go, you won’t have to look very far to find people speaking it. It’s tough to identify personally with something that is hardly distinctive. For people who speak a less widespread language, their mother tongue can have much more personal significance. My mother has an old friend who, in the years since her husband’s death, has started going to a Latvian church because, even after decades in the United States, it is still comforting to hear and speak the language she grew up with.

For my great-grandparents, this would have been the case with Yiddish. Learning their language is a way for me to connect with them through space and time. But in this case, it’s also a sort of cultural preservation. Understanding the value of a language to its speakers reveals what is really lost when a language vanishes. It’s not just the sounds and the words that disappear. It’s the connections that traverse generations. Yiddish was precious to my great-grandparents because it was theirs. So I’m honoring that by making it mine as well.

A brief message in my great-grandfather's handwriting on the back of a photo of my grandfather.

A brief message in my great-grandfather's handwriting on the back of a photo of my grandfather.

File under Language, Yiddish, Family

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