I set myself a task in 2021: to collect the full set of Teach Yourself language courses from the 1980s and 1990s. That task is nearly complete, with the missing languages now counting in the single figures. I’ve ended up with a really comprehensive language learning library including a bunch of languages I’ve never even thought of studying, from Afrikaans to Zulu.
So what now?
Well, it is the season for New Year’s Resolutions, so I had a crackpot idea. What about working through each of them in 2022, attempting to complete the first chapter in every one?
The Dabbling Library
You crazy fool! I hear you cry, what’s the gain in that? After all, a bunch of introductory chapters won’t result in a very strong working knowledge of any of them. A bit of a lot, but not a lot of much.
That all depends on your goals in language learning, though. Of course, I still have those core projects with the aim of high-level functional or conversation fluency, like Gaelic, Greek and Polish. And I have my maintenance projects to retain fluency in languages like German, Norwegian and Spanish.
But there’s a huge amount to be gained from casual dabbling, and my little TY cache promises to be fertile ground for that.
A Little Goes A Long Way
For one thing, I’ve learnt over the past year-and-a-bit of master study in linguistics that knowing about languages – regardless of your ability to speak them conversationally – is invaluable. Even a brief foray into how wildly disparate tongues work can give you a whole new perspective on how humans do this whole language business. Exploring beyond the Indo-European bubble, for example, helped me to dismantle some sticklers of limits to my linguistic thinking. Arming your mind with a thousand varied examples is great prep for linguistic research.
My single-chapter dabbling spree is a chance to fill in some telling gaps, too. Some of those languages on my TY shelf are close siblings to others I know well. Catalan, Portuguese, Italian… I’m expecting my Spanish to help prise the door open a little bit more than the very first pages. Just learning a few regular sound correspondences and cognate (mis)matches can provide a working knowledge beyond the concrete words and structures you learn from the page itself. That’s not to mention the bird’s eye view you get of particular language families, particularly on how close pairings differ.
And finally, there’s the caveat that building bridges with languages doesn’t require absolute fluency. Just a few words – a hello, a please, a thank you – is enough to make a human connection. Knowing just jó napot (good day) in Hungarian was ice-breaker enough to strike up conversation with restaurant staff in Birmingham. A smattering of 100 or so Hebrew words was ample for having a hybrid French-Hebrew conversation with Israelis in a bar in Paris. In short: don’t discount the value of even a tiny bit of knowledge.
Dabbling Down on Languages
So, wish me fun, enjoying this lot. I would ask for luck, but when language is the pleasure it is to all of us, we don’t need too much of that. Because that joy is the clincher, it’ll remain very low-key in terms of organised study, particularly since I’m ever-wary of goal exhaustion.
But please, feel free to join me on this journey mastering beginnings, if I’ve convinced you. Giving old books a new lease of life is an easy and really affordable way to start your own dabbling shelf!