Everything You Wanted to Know about Language But Were Afraid to Ask

“Sex is language” might be an imperfect metaphor, but let’s go ahead and follow this particular rabbit trail. It’s only about 5:30 in the morning, and I’ve got my cup of tea. I can do this.

You see, despite the tips promulgated by the likes of Cosmopolitan magazine, there is no abstract thing called “sex” out there that you can become good at. People vary, with an infinite variety of kinks and fetishes, with as many body types and physiologies, and what works for one person or on another person may not work with the next partner. Likewise, you’re not going to become good at “language.” Oh, sure, there’s linguistics, or the comparative study of languages, which can involve investigations into the relationship between our words and neuroscience (is language hard-wired? is linguistic ability inherent?) or the quest for various Ur-languages, such as Proto-Indo-European. However, a knowledge of the broader architecture of language will not help you in specific situations. See how far your grasp of voiced bilabial fricatives will aid you in getting a cab ride in St. Petersburg if you don’t happen to know Russian.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some carryover. A knowledge of Swedish will give you some communicative ability were you to travel to Denmark or Norway–but not Borneo. There are realms that overlap in both language and desire, but even then, don’t assume that speaking what’s taught in the schools necessarily makes you a native, for there are all manner of local dialects. “Here we do our spanking a little bit differently.” I bet you do.

Some people like traveling the world and can speak the pidgin used in ports and for trade, never mastering a single language other than their own but knowing just enough to meet some vary basic needs in various countries. Some people stick with a single tongue and aim to become ever better at it through the years. And there walk among us linguists and spies who have picked up a dozen or more languages in their lifetime, but they know that this accumulation of knowledge does not necessarily lend itself to the immediate context. If you’re trying to negotiate the secret sell of weapons in Afghanistan, better speak Pashto or Dari, at the very least. The Spanish you picked up while murdering nuns in Central America won’t really help you out here. In fulfilling your wants or needs, the local lingo is everything.

(And yes, there are plenty of Americans who think that if they just shout at you in the one language they speak, you will understand, people who secretly or not so secretly think that the rest of the world is lying if they insist upon their differences. “Look, I’m telling you, I need a little bit of warming up down there before–” “YEAH BABY, YOU LIKE IT HARD AND FAST LIKE THAT, UH HUH, UH HUH.”)

The only way to learn a language is by doing, by asking questions, by fumbling a bit and looking foolish at the beginning. People who are afraid of this do not understand the nature of communication or believe that people are actually pretty forgiving. Besides, in any relationship, your partner is also learning, and you’ve got to be a good teacher.

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