The Benefits of Knowing Languages.

Another passage from Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post):

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s life or the lives of other people.

In earlier years, when merchants were traveling, they carried all their cash in money belts slung around their shoulders. They wore them on the Danube steamers too, and that was dangerous. Once, when my mother’s grandfather got on deck and pretended to sleep, he overheard two men discussing a murder plan in Greek. As soon as the steamer approached the next town, they wanted to mug and kill a merchant in his stateroom, steal his heavy money belt, throw the body into the Danube through a porthole, and then, when the steamer docked, leave the ship immediately. My great-grandfather went to the captain and told him what he had heard in Greek. The merchant was warned, a member of the crew concealed himself in the stateroom, others were stationed outside, and when the two cutthroats went to carry out their plan, they were seized, clapped into chains, and handed over to the police in the very harbor where they had intended to make off with their booty. This happy end came from understanding Greek, and there were many other edifying language stories.

Comments

  1. During my fieldwork in the Sahara, I got so tired of people repeatedly quoting to me the same justification for language learning: “He who learns the language of a people is safe from their evil.” But I have to admit it can be a persuasive argument in the right circumstances.

  2. Learning someone’s language is like sharing a meal with a stranger.

    Alien people are no longer strangers to you.

    Perhaps that’s the reason why some people don’t like outsiders to learn their language

  3. Trond Engen says:

    Lameeen: During my fieldwork in the Sahara, I got so tired of people repeatedly quoting to me the same justification for language learning: “He who learns the language of a people is safe from their evil.” But I have to admit it can be a persuasive argument in the right circumstances.

    For people learning languages out of interest or economic advantage, the argument could be important as a justification even without being much of the actual motivation. In an environment of ethno-linguistic hostility or at least justified mutual distrust, knowing the language of the other makes you suspect.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    And then there was Yugoslavia.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is still the case that plenty of US universities offer instruction in Ancient Greek but not in Modern Greek, despite the latter’s indisputably greater utility in detecting and foiling criminal plots. Once upon a time I would have taken that as evidence of a commendable rejection of excessively utilitarian considerations in curriculum design, but maybe that was naive?

  6. Yugoslavia was a case where if you were a member of a minority, eg. Slovenian or Macedonian, you still had to learn the language of the majority, even though your own language was constituionally recognised as an official language of Yugoslavia. This was especially so for all males goung through National Service, where the language was Serbian. There was no requirement for Croats, Serbs, Muslims or Montenegrins to learn any of the other official languages of the federation. Contrast this to Finland where the majority population are required to learn Swedish, the second official language of the country.

  7. In my limited experience with Finns, they really don’t know Swedish, even though they had to take it in school.

    But they all speak English though

  8. There is a thing running around Facebook these days with hilarious stories of horrible things people say when they think no one can understand them. People associate language with ethnicity of course. They are unpleasantly surprised to find to that that white guy over there has heard and understood their every bigoted word. You’d think people could learn what Mormon men look like; it’s pretty stereotypical.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve seen Mormons once here in Berlin, and only recognized them from what I had read on teh intarwebz. Unlike Jehovah’s Witlesses, they aren’t everywhere.

  10. Actually, I think they are? I mean, there are lots of Mormons, and they are very frequently sent to do missionary work all over the world (a fellow student of mine, a brilliant budding physicist, had to interrupt his studies to go off somewhere and ring doorbells).

  11. There are fewer Mormons than you might think – 6.5 million in the US, another 9.5 million in the rest of the world. Though that’s still twice as many as there are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  12. I am not quite sure how the discussion switched to Mormons.

    Are you saying that there are millions of Mormon polyglots out there who learned various exotic languages during their missionary work?

    I knew a couple of Mormon missionaries who managed to learn a few words in Mongolian after a year in Mongolia – polyglots they weren’t…

  13. How many followers of Dorje Shugden are there?

  14. There are fewer Mormons than you might think – 6.5 million in the US, another 9.5 million in the rest of the world.

    That’s about as many as I would have thought.

    Though that’s still twice as many as there are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    QED.

  15. I knew a couple of Mormon missionaries who managed to learn a few words in Mongolian after a year in Mongolia – polyglots they weren’t…

    Well, they only get 9 weeks of intensive language training before they’re shipped out, so you wouldn’t expect them to exactly hit the ground running in Mongolian. I imagine that, like Peace Corps volunteers, some do gain fluency in two years, while others do not, depending on the language, their ages, and the individual level of effort.

    I remember running into a group of six Mormon missionaries late at night somewhere in a train station in provincial Russia (Yaroslavl? Ivanovo? Somewhere in that vicinity) during the Yeltsin era. We were alone in the waiting room, but I was dressed like a local and had no inclination to let them know that they were in the presence of a fellow American, so I scowled in their general direction and said nary a word. During the entire time we were waiting for the train, however, they spoke to one another in Russian–heavily accented, with the usual intermediate-ish sort of grammatical errors–but certainly understandable. I have to say, I admired their discipline, as under the circumstances even very dedicated language students must have been tempted to call it a night and revert to L1.

    I’ve seen Mormons once here in Berlin

    This isn’t surprising. Like the Catholics and the Anglicans, the Mormons have mostly hitched their proselytizing wagon to the Global South.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    I knew an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Togo who had the distinction of being one of the tiny number of Europeans able to speak good Moba; it will have helped that his wife is Moba.

    He used to speak it to his children too “until they started correcting my grammar”, at which point he reverted to French.

  17. “Like the Catholics and the Anglicans, the Mormons have mostly hitched their proselytizing wagon to the Global South.”

    That’s my experience from London too – I’ve met Mormon missionaries once (“oh, like the ones in ‘A Study in Scarlet’?” They weren’t impressed). But the place is absolutely teeming with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, who seem to have made tremendous progress converting London’s black population in particular.

  18. A phenomenon Zadie Smith has written about.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    I have probably posted this before, but the last two paragraphs of this otherwise irrelevant post give an account of an incident on the Metro in Paris* where unbeknownst to the two native speakers, two different white guys in the car, not Mormons and not acquainted with each other, each had reasonably proficient L2 knowledge of Wolof. https://snowflakesedge.com/2009/08/24/men-of-cloth/

    *I have heard the same anecdote told to me separately by “Emmanuel,” who I think said it actually happened in Brussels …

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Probably encountered a Mormon missionary (not two) once in Paris. Never in Austria – a classmate happened to be a Mormon from Hungary, though. JWs are all over Austrian and German doorbells and the outside of larger subway stations.

  21. In America (where both sects originated), there is a difference in the types of people who proselytize for the Mormons and the Jehova’s Witnesses. The Mormons are people in the early twenties (almost exclusively male) from other parts of the country, working full time as missionaries. The Witness are locals, who proselytize in their spare time. In Oregon, both groups mostly knocked on doors, but here in South Carolina, the Witnesses tend to just set up booths in high-traffic locations and talk to people as they pass by.

    A good friend’s grandmother claimed that she could pretty reliably get rid of them by intentionally mistaking one sect for the other. When the Jehova’s Witnesses talk to me (which is not so infrequently, since they like to pass out literature down the block from my office), I just act really enthusiastically interested in “hearing about how the world is going to end in 1914″* and about the group’s founder Charles Taze Russell (who they do not like to talk about much). Here is a schematic of Russell’s view of the progression of history, although since it’s a modern printing, the 1914 date for the onset of Armageddon is notably absent. (If I showed any of my kids that image, their only response would be “Illuminati confirmed.”)

    * I mentioned MIT professor Alan Hein in another comment earlier this evening. Right up until his retirement in 1999, he would apologize and joke about the poor quality of the building in which the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences was located. Unfortunately for those of us who had classes there, the administration did not want to spent any money fixing the building up, “because this building is coming down in nineteen sixty-five.”

  22. “oh, like the ones in ‘A Study in Scarlet’?” They weren’t impressed

    Yep, that’s the first thing I asked too: “How many wives do you have?”

    Was very disappointed to learn that they no longer do polygamy.

  23. A couple of years ago I told some Jehovah’s Witnesses I was a Buddhist. They didn’t seem to know how to respond. End of conversation.

    Many years ago I engaged with some Mormons by noting their elders looked really conservative. Would they be Republican voters by any chance? I was told most of them probably were, at which point I just wandered off. No one tried to stop me. Politics plus religion seems to be a conversation-killer.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    The Witness are locals, who proselytize in their spare time.

    Same everywhere. Usually they’re retired.

    Was very disappointed to learn that they no longer do polygamy.

    That was the condition for admitting Utah into the union as a state.

    The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – yep, that’s how they call themselves – wanted to hear nothing of that and produced a huge abuse scandal a few years ago (the leader had basically enslaved all the women and girls).

  25. There are a number of polygamous splinter groups in rural Utah, with varying levels of organization. The FLDS led by Warren Jeffs is just the largest and most odious.

  26. I see Mormons fairly frequently in Vienna, probably because there is an LDS center in my neighbourhood near the Rathaus. They offer free English lessons.

  27. gwenllian says:

    I’ve seen Mormons once here in Berlin
    This isn’t surprising. Like the Catholics and the Anglicans, the Mormons have mostly hitched their proselytizing wagon to the Global South.

    For a while I used to see them pretty regularly in Zagreb, but I haven’t in quite some time now. Maybe they’ve given up?

    I’ve never spoken to them, so no idea what their language skills were like.

    You’d think people could learn what Mormon men look like; it’s pretty stereotypical.

    What denomination(s) are the young married couples, in mainstream clothing, who come over from the US to do charity work and proselytize for a couple of years or so? There seemed to be quite a few of them in the region after the war, or maybe more like some 15 years ago, especially in hardest-hit Bosnia. Not sure how much of that is still going on.

    In any case, it must be pretty frustrating work. Though I guess maybe it’s not that difficult if you truly believe you’re doing what god is asking of you.

    but here in South Carolina, the Witnesses tend to just set up booths in high-traffic locations and talk to people as they pass by

    Pretty much like that here too. Never really had negative experiences, they usually just ask if you’re happy and if you’d like a copy of their magazine, and they don’t press the issue when people refuse. Don’t really hear of them ringing doorbells here.

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