Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.
Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.
As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.
In today’s world, languages are everywhere.
It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.
But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.
At the mercy of markets
The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.
As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?
But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.
In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.
Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.
Keep an open mind
For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.
After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.
Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!
So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?
Hunt them down
Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.
Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.
Seek them near – and far
You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁
No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋
Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!
Consume them actively
These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.
Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.
To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.
At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!
Globalism and the global village linguist
Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.
When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.
Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.
As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!