Making myself understood

There’s no telling when knowing another language will come in handy.


I had to study French in high school, and I did not do well at it. I knew I eventually wanted a PhD and was told that studying foreign languages was required, but I didn’t understand why. 

I began to realize that other languages might be useful, sometimes unexpectedly, when as a college undergraduate I audited a course in the Old Testament. One day I asked the professor what was his particular area of scholarship.

“Assyrian literature,” he replied.

I didn’t know then that there was even enough Assyrian literature to work with. But my next question was, “How on earth do you learn Assyrian?” 

“First, you get very good at German,” he replied. “The textbook is in German.”

It was my first realization of the complexity of scholarly work. My grad school insisted only that I be able to read mathematics texts in French and German, but my father insisted I learn to speak the languages as well. I have needed to read and speak both, for my research. I’ve even lectured in French, although not in German.

In 1986 I was invited to lecture in Shanghai, China, in English. I knew the students would read English better than they understood spoken English, so I wrote out the big words on transparencies. (PowerPoint had yet to appear.) My hosts produced a dusty but functional projector, but to aim it at the only blank wall in the room I’d need an extension cord. I could not make my request understood to them.

The students filed in. In desperation, drawing on some unknown instinct, I turned to the class and asked, “Haben Sie ein Verlängerungsschnur?” I’m not at all sure I had the German correct, but a student jumped up and brought me an extension cord. (He’d learned from previous visiting professors – all of whom had been East German.)

I’ve continued to encounter surprises of that sort. Recently, I spoke with a fellow professor whose research involves looking at art from ancient Syria. One of his most useful references is a collection of volumes called the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. A typical page contains a copy of an inscription written in Aramaic, a transliteration into Hebrew, and then a translation and commentary in Latin. Fair enough, my colleague said. But then he found that to work out the dates and chronology of the objects, he had to use another book – in Danish.

In the fall of 1987, my wife and I taught computer science at a Danish university. We lectured and collected homework in English. 

Our colleagues were surprised when I asked where I could sign up for a course in Danish for foreigners. Why? they wondered. I gained a little collegial respect when I replied, “There are passages in Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ that I want to understand better.” Learning to read basic Danish was fairly easy. But Kierkegaard’s convoluted sentences often proved incomprehensible to me.

A semester later, we were teaching in the Faroe Islands – a part of Denmark as far removed geographically as it is linguistically. After a day of sightseeing, my wife and I stood at a bus stop to go home, only to find that we had inexplicably missed the last bus. We had to hitchhike.

Much later, using a Faroese-to-Danish dictionary, I deciphered the footnote in the bus schedule: “This service operates one quarter hour earlier on the Thursday before Easter.” 

There are many reasons I’ve needed foreign languages. They have helped in research, gotten me job assignments overseas, let me make friends abroad, and enabled me to understand other cultures better. Languages can increase your vocabulary in ways that let you think or express yourself more clearly.

But sometimes, you just need to not miss the bus. 

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