Reading about invented languages

May 12th, 2010

This book by Arika Okrent is pretty cool. I’m only halfway through it, but it talks about the growth over time of pre-planned language systems. Some were designed for the purpose of practical communication, and some were designed for fictional universes.

I’ve always loved foreign languages, but I’m afraid I don’t have much aptitude for them. (Evidence for the first claim: the first rock record I ever owned was 99 Luftballons, which had one side in English and one in German. Evidence for the second: I studied French for nearly eight years, and when I overhear people speaking French in public I understand almost nothing.) So I don’t think I could join Okrent on her journey of studying Esperanto and Klingon, but I’m enjoying the ride.

Something struck me in the part about visual languages. One became used in the Ontario Crippled Children Centre for those patients who could not speak. Previously, their communication had been isolated to a practical matter, a way to signal caregivers that they needed something. I’ll quote: “Kids whose communicative worlds had been defined by the options of pointing to a picture of a toilet, or waiting for someone to ask the right question, started talking about a car trip with a father, a brother’s new bicycle, a pet cat’s habit of hiding under the bed.”

This may be why I grew disillusioned with phrasebooks the times I’ve traveled. A phrasebook gives you a set of problem-solving indicators of needs, and a handful of conventional phatics (such as “hello” or “thank you”) without social context. Sure, you can use them, but you don’t learn the language, and you don’t learn to listen or anticipate what someone might say back to you. At best, you get a momentary smile of amusement at the foreigner who learned to say “Buenos dias” or “Ni hao.”

That’s why I’m a little moved by the communication of the speechless children in Ontario. Their frustration wasn’t from being unable to demand a drink or announce that they needed to pee. Their frustration was that the interesting world around them–the cars, the bicycles, the cat under the bed–had no way to be shown.

I saw this quote on Twitter a few weeks ago, and it speaks to what I’m thinking about here: “I truly believe that one of the most wonderful and reverent things you can say to another human being is ‘look!'”–Kathleen Dean Moore.

The times in India when I was trying to talk to someone who spoke little English, I felt the same thing. I could get what I wanted easily enough–but what I really wanted to say was, “Look at that cow walking over the bridge” or “The people selling corn on the roadside remind me of my home in Nebraska.” If I were writing a phrasebook, the first phrase I’d want to know is “Look!”

And yet, sometimes that wasn’t an obstacle. You can say more through a glance and a gesture. It takes practice, but when it works, it’s also a wonderful and reverent thing to say.
Traffic in Varanasi

2 Responses to “Reading about invented languages”

  1. I completely understand your challenges with French. However, I think everyone can have the gift of languages. You just may need the right tool to help you open it.

    I took 2 years of Spanish in High School and when I moved to Spain for a summer – I was totally lost. I lived there for a summer and my Spanish improved tremendously. I then took a couple of years in college but really didn’t learn anything that helps me communicate in the language today.

    I love languages – but it seems like a huge investment in time and money. At least that is what I thought until about 3 years ago. I was working for a translation agency and ran across a company called Mango Languages in the news. The company sounded really interesting.

    I said out loud – wow, I would love to meet the folks who started this company. Wouldn’t you know it – less then a week later the CEO attended a training I was giving. I absolutely love to see the universe work that way.

    We had coffee and became fast friends. A little more than eight months ago, I began working for the company full time – I was doing a bit of social media consulting with them for a few months before.

    Their language learning program is really wonderful – if only I had access to something like this before I lived in Spain, my trip would have been so much easier. The program teaches you real life conversations that you can use after your very first lesson.

    I am not saying this just because I work for them…I am saying this as a fellow language learner and traveler. 😉

    The best part – you can get it for free via your public library. All you have to do is go to and put in your zip code. The library locator will show the nearest libraries that offer Mango for free to their patrons. All you need is the library card to get access. You can access it from home, a coffee shop or at work if you want. All you need is a participating libray card, a computer and internet access.

    I wish you luck – I think we can help you have the gift of languages. 🙂

  2. Brian Barker says:

    As far as learning a new language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto

    I know that Esperanto is a living language, but it helps language learning as well.

    Your readers might also like to see

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

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