Sunday, December 14, 2008


A few weeks ago, myself and nine of my Japanese co-workers took a test designed for non-native speakers of English who wanted to teach English as a second language. My company offered the course to the Japanese university students enrolled in its program, but only one student signed up for the course, and a minimum of ten people were mandatory in order for anybody to take the test, so myself and some of the other Japanese office staff were recruited just for the hell of it.

The test itself wasn't all that difficult for a native speaker of English, as it was mostly designed to test common-sense ESL teaching competency, of which I, admittedly, have little, so I was thrown by a few questions here and there. What threw me even more, however, was the checklist at the beginning of the test, where you were supposed to put a checkmark in the little box next to your native tongue.

I realized I am, and will forever be, hopelessly illiterate.

And ignorant regarding most of the world's languages.

Below, in alphabetical order, are the languages that I had never even heard of. (Please feel free to play along at home and raise your hand or ring the bell whenever you come across a language that sounds even vaguely familiar. Two points for each language, and no cheating.)

Amharic. Assamese. Aymara. Baluchi. Bambara. Bemba. Bihan. Efik. Ewe. Eaeroese. Fulani. Ga. Gilbertese. Gujarati. Hausa. Ibo/Igbo. Igala. Kannada. Luba. Luo. Luxemburgish. Malagasy. Malinka. Malayalam. Marathi. Marshallese. Malinka. Malayalam. Oriya. Ponapean. Quechua. Rajasthani. Riff. Shona. Sindhi. Swiss German. Tatar. Telugu. Tigrinya. Trukese. Tulu. TupilGuarani. Ulithian. Wolof. Yoruba. Yao. Yapese.


How did you do?

Four points? Eight?

Me, I knew that people spoke German in Switzerland -- but I didn't know that 'Swiss German' could actually be considered one's native language, and that it was different enough from German German to be thought of as something else altogether. I knew of Luxemburg -- but I didn't know the people there spoke their own language. All the other languages simply sound vaguely African, or Asian, or just plain foreign.

And even though I've lived in Asia for close to ten years, I'm still thrown by my own ignorance.

After all, those languages were all listed at the front of the test because people actually speaking those languages wanted to teach English. And here I am, already an English teacher, and not even aware that these languages existed.

A similar thought was pounded home for me a week or so ago when I was reading an article in the New York Times about a new biography of McGeorge Bundy, one of JFK's confidantes and collaborator in the Vietnam fiasco. At one point Kennedy's bipartisianship was pointed out by this quote of his: "I don't care if the man is a Democrat or an Igorot."

This phrase stopped me cold because I've been living in a house with a bunch of Igorots in the Philippines in between my jaunts in Tokyo for the past few years. I knew that word. I understood that word, and the people it represents. It had an emotional connection for me, whereas only three years ago I had never even heard of an Igorot. (Igorots being one of the tribal peoples of the northern Philippines.)

I doubt you could find many North Americans today, let alone political leaders, who could tell you where the Igorot people live. That Kennedy was able to throw such a quote out in casual conversation, and expect it to be understood, made me think that we've (or maybe just I've) lost something in the intervening forty years of development, civilization, progress.

A knowledge about the wider world, perhaps.

A desire to know its peoples.

Another example:

Last year I was teaching at a university in Saitama in Japan, and in one of my classes were a handful of friendly, vaguely Turkish-looking people who were decidedly not of Japanese origin, and they told me that they were Uighurs, and I smiled, and nodded, and eventually had to admit that I had never heard of their people, at all, and it turns out they were Chinese citizens who occupied a western corner of that massive, impenetrable country, had an autonomous government, were spread across the world, and incidentally occupied a considerable portion of Toronto, where I went to university.

And I had never heard of them.

Taking this test, and reading through the vast names of languages I did not know, had never before considered, would never learn, reminded me of the Uighurs I had met. About how ignorant I felt, confessing that an entire peoples' -- their peoples' -- history and culture was a blank slate in my brain.

I understand that it's a big world, and I am only one, and they are vast and many.

But still.

Language after language, unknowable. Illiterate in all of them. (As are, most likely, you.) We only have so much time, and capacity, and distance is a detriment we cannot cross.

And so many of their speakers desperate to teach English.

I lay awake the other night wondering what it would be like if everybody, everywhere, spoke everyone's language. Every word of every tongue. No strange vocabulary. All concepts complete. Almost intimate. A perfect grounds for communication.

I tried to imagine a person for each language I had read on that meangingless test. Were they black, white, brown, yellow? Could a speaker of Tulu and a speaker of Yapese somehow be able to chill out with a beer and a smoke and solve the world's problems?

If we all knew what everybody was saying, would anything change?

Probably not.

Still, confronted by a vast sea of languages that remained insufferably foreign, I wondered if it would be worth it to try and learn them all. To put a dent in the distance that lies between us, however hollow it might prove to be. It would take a lifetime, perhaps two, possibly three, to achieve such a feat of linguistic power, but who is to say it could not be done?

What a thrill that would be! The one human on earth who could speak to any other person on the planet, no matter their age, race, sex, location, language, whatever.

Everyone an ally. Noone impenetrable.

Not possible, I know.

Yet in those drifting minutes before sleep, listening to the sound of a distant train rumble along the rickety tracks, I could almost hear that medley of languages melding together, and I thought, if I listened close enough, and tried hard enough, a single meaning could be found. A single voice might be heard, one similar, if not identical, to my own.