Learning languages

Ever since the Tower of Babel (we are told) languages have served as much to separate people as to join them.  If we want to shrink the globe and have a better chance of understanding the rest of the world, we have to learn to speak as others do.  And that is not easy.

Most Common Languages

About 200 languages have a million or more native speakers.  The six most common languages are:


(from Ethnologue, 14 ed. [2000])

The best ways of picking up a new language are most often unavailable to us:  living on your own in a community that doesn't speak your language, or starting to learn a new language before the age of five. 

But there are still a lot of options available. 

Carlos Fuentes.
México, D.F. : Alfaguara, 2010.
Life is good, everything is in order and you are happy. Then your boss gives you an unofficial assignment. Nothing complicated. He needs you to find a house for an eccentric Rumanian count, a house close to a ravine. Just when you thought your job was done, you realize that the nightmare has just begun. In this house without mirrors and walled windows, blood flows as fresh as it did five centuries before and as sweet in Mexico City as in far away Rumania.

Books are the old stand-by.  Dictionaries and grammars can be referred to in a classroom or at home.  Foreign language fiction lets the reader enjoy the beauty of that written language.  Books, not surprisingly, tend to give a visual, 'book' knowledge.  They do not always lead easily into speaking.

Arabic phrase book & CD
Singapore : Berlitz Pub./APA Publications GMBH & Co., p2008.
  1. At head of title: Berlitz.
  2. Accompanying book: Arabic phrase book & dictionary. c2007.
  3. Audio CD compatible with iPod & MP3 devices.
  4. In English and Arabic.

A wide range of audio products address the conversation issue.  Audio tape is the standard format, but it is rapidly being supplemented by CD, video tape and DVD.  The emphasis switches to sound, and we hear speakers who speak fluently and properly.  You listen and repeat. The language becomes a part of you.

A critical handbook of Japanese film directors : from the silent era to the present day
Alexander Jacoby ; foreword by Donald Richie.
Berkeley, Calif. : Stone Bridge Press, c2008.
Jacoby, an independent writer and research on Japanese cinema, offers profiles of some 150 Japanese directors including noted masters such as Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi as well as emerging modern talents as Takashi Miike. Each entry includes a detailed and objective filmography coupled with subjective analyses of each director's contribution to the art form. Written primarily for film students and film buffs, this book also includes a short history of Japanese cinema and a brief overview of the current industry system. Annotation #169;2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Movies, filmed in a foreign language, with English subtitles, can be very helpful.  You can SEE what's happening, and the subtitles will confirm that what you are hearing has a specific meaning.  Watching foreign language television (fairly common in cable packages) is also useful, although the lack of subtitles may make the learning process more difficult.

Understanding more than one language adds to a traveler's experience.  It can also increase the opportunities to interact with community members from various cultures.

Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff