Editor finds worth in 'worthless' language

One of my favorite pastimes is travel, but unfortunately for me, as a poor college student the opportunity does not arise often. And although I have several trips planned for the next few years, I'm often left with a lot of time between the trips that I use to learn as much as possible about a country or region before I actually go.

At the beginning of last summer I decided I wanted to go to Denmark and the surrounding region. Naturally, (for me anyway) I chose to invest in some books and an audio CD about learning Danish. So during the summer while I worked a job that had hours and hours of downtime, I read these books and made vocabulary flash cards to quiz myself. It never really occurred to me how weird this decision might seem to normal people.

Language choices given in schools

I'm pretty sure in America a list exists of acceptable languages to learn: Spanish is the obvious choice (I spent three years learning that.); French is the trendy, but less popular, choice (I spent most of high school and a year in college learning that.), and the final choice is German, but I'm pretty sure public schools are slowly phasing out this language for reasons unknown to me. I assume it has something to do with "we're American, and the rest of the world should learn English."

Once an individual gets to a university, options like Japanese, Chinese and Russian open up. Probably because everything we, as capitalists, love comes from Asia, and I guess we'll never be able to trust the Russians after they beat us to space, so Russian is probably the popular choice for future CIA agents.

Editor's unusual language choice

But Danish is a language excluded from lists of "worthwhile" languages (Unless you live in Minnesota. Apparently the reason the professional football team is named the Vikings is a lot of Scandinavian descendants live in that part of America, don’t ya know?).

So when I revealed to people I was learning Danish, it was received with a lot of criticism and resulted in some being completely miffed by my decision. I guess that's fair because most people in this country don't start learning second languages until secondary school, and most of them are used to having only two or three options, but at the same time it's a bit sad, in my opinion. Most Europeans I've met domestically or abroad spoke at least three languages, if not more, including their native language.

I'm not really a language expert, nor am I fluent in any language other than English, but I guess I'll say at least I try to learn as much as possible. And based on my experiences abroad it seems as if people at least appreciate I attempted to speak a language other than English when approaching them. I definitely never came across any Europeans who hated me as a lot of Americans claim Europeans do.

Maybe the frail appearance of my body gave them the impression I was Canadian. I’ll probably never know, but they were super nice to me.

New discovery supports studies of foreign languages

Anyhow, I've lacked free time during the school year to do any significant studying of Danish, but I've recently discovered a website called Duolingo, which is free and allows English users to learn Spanish, French and German and native Spanish speakers can learn English.

I’ve never used Rosetta Stone, but I’ve heard folks compare the two programs. However, Duolingo is several hundreds of dollars cheaper than Rosetta Stone, so it’s definitely a bargain. Duolingo has been a way for me to brush up on French and Spanish through short lessons, and I've even started a few lessons of German. Each lesson takes about 10 minutes and is pretty enjoyable.

So until winter break arrives and I find an abundance of free time to learn my ridiculous, semi-useless languages, I can at least take comfort in knowing I don't have to be the ignorant American. No, I can be the pretentious one who thinks he’s cool for knowing the basics of some European language and its culture.

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September 2011: Editor's perspective altered by foreign experiences