French or Russian?
Or German or Welsh? (Or Chinese?)
I’d like to be working on a foreign language right now. Actually, I’d like to work on a lot of things, but improving my linguistic skills would be useful both from the perspective of intellectual satisfaction and of professional development. I’m at a point in several languages (German, Russian and Welsh) where I’ve got a good handle on the basic grammar, and what I really need to do is to expand my vocabulary and improve my reading comprehension. My French vocabulary is good enough that I can read comfortably, but I could still stand to improve it, and there’s plenty of good French literature out there I haven’t even touched (which is particularly embarrassing for someone with a degree in French literature). My Chinese comprehension is well behind my comprehension in other languages, but the nature of Chinese is such that even looking up a character in the dictionary can be a great linguistic adventure, and I could definitely stand some practice in looking up radicals and taking characters apart. (And then I could further said adventures by going to zhongwen.com and looking up related and root characters!)
My point, in all of this, is that I’m in a position in each of these languages to significantly improve my abilities by doing some daily reading and studying. The question is: which one?
I have to point out, before I get any further, that this is not just a pipe dream and I actually have done this in the past. Eighteen months ago, I spent over a month plugging diligently away on a Russian article, working on it for at least an hour a day. (The fact that I was doing on-site work at a library in Alabama and had nothing to do with my evenings in my hotel may have had something to do with this.) Before that, I spent the summer between Russian 102 and 201 going over case endings and verb conjugations every day. (A miserable second year of German had taught me that I really did need to put the grammar memorization time in, and not just try to fly by the seat of my pants.) However, my most recent attempt (last semester) was a bit less successful. Last semester I was supposed to work on Chinese. I got as far as half of one sentence of the Chinese version of an iconic English book (“Hali Pota”).
So, here are the candidates for a semester or a summer of free-time language study (such as that may turn out to be):
Chinese: There are a number of Chinese students in my program, so I encounter the language a lot and often wish I could understand more than I can. Plus, this is my newest language, so (fickle polyglot that I am) it’s the one that I’m still the most excited about. (Plus, how cool would it be to watch Chinese martial arts movies without the subtitles?)
French: I have a very nice copy of Les Misérables on my bookshelf that I’ve never gotten all the way through. Not that it’s so hard (Hugo is surprisingly accessible), but there’s just a lot of it, and the 19th century vocabulary got in the way of my reading comprehension. But there are plenty of French writers that I love and whose work I feel I should read more of: Balzac, Hugo, Camus, Sartre, Tocqueville . . .
German: This is the language about which I am currently most apathetic. It’s also the language I encounter the most in my daily activity, because about a third of the books I’m cataloging are in German and I attend a biweekly librarian lunch where we speak German, so I have the opportunity to humiliate myself in the language twice a month. (I have a feeble desire to convince the others that really, I could speak much better if I cared at all.) Adding to my great apathy is the fact that I don’t really like any German writers, except maybe Hesse and sort of Brecht.
Russian: This is the language I most want to study, in part because of the literature (there’s still Tolstoy and Pushkin, even if it turns out I don’t like Dostoyevsky), and in part because I have a sneaking suspicion that Melyngoch will be called to serve a Russian-speaking mission, and I’m not going to let her get better than me if I can help it! (That’s a very mature attitude, right?)
Welsh: This is probably the coolest language I’ve ever studied. Not that it holds a candle to Russian or Chinese in terms of difficulty, but it’s just so random. Plus, I could translate Wikipedia articles into Welsh, which seems vaguely like it would amount to an actual contribution to society.