I guess I officially have a new hobby: learning new languages. I always thought it would be cool to be a polyglot, but it never seemed practical to learn. I mean, I was fluent in Spanish at the end of high school, but haven’t used it much since, even after moving to California. What would be the point of learning a bunch of languages nobody else I knew could speak?
Well, I finally found an excuse. Writing secondary world fantasy, I generally don’t invent new languages to go along with the cultures, but I do need naming languages: that is, a consistent way to name characters and places within the world that will sound consistent and be evocative of the atmosphere I want to create. If I push that a step further, though, and have more than one culture, one of the best ways to differentiate characters is through their dialogue and speech patterns—speech patterns that I can set using foreign languages as a base.
So, over the last months, I’ve spent over 40 hours learning Eastern Arabic; ninety 30-minute lessons in an audio program that fits conveniently into my evening commute. I have no practical daily use for the language, of course, but one of the cultures in my latest project has a language based on Arabic (the other is based on Basque, but there was no readily available audio course for that!), so I figured that would be as good a place to start deepening my understanding as any.
Just last week, I finished with Arabic and began learning French. I chose it partly to give myself a break (for the record, French is so much easier than Arabic), and partly because I’ve been reading the Temeraire books aloud to my husband, and I always hated not knowing how to pronounce the French words. I’m going to have to steel myself at the end of 30 lessons to switch to Polish, which I expect to fall somewhere in between in difficulty. Eventually I’ll return to French to get beyond the basics, but I want to be able to converse with my Polish grandma when I visit over Christmas.
Because I already knew Spanish, I was expecting to have trouble with mixing up the two Romance languages. What I didn’t expect was to mix up French with Arabic, not because they’re alike, but because I managed to ingrain Arabic well enough that my brain is now going to that as my default second language. It probably doesn’t help that the audio program is structured the same for every language, right down to the narrator’s voice. I expect (hope!) the effect will wear off after a couple weeks.
Even though I started to enhance my writing, my new hobby has had an unintended side-effect: taking up some of the brain space I previously spent on my writing. Some of the time I previously spent living in my created worlds is now spent living in my new languages, cutting into my productivity. In future, I will probably need to pace myself, but for now, since I’m not on deadline and I’m enjoying the learning, I think it’s worth it.
Keep a lookout for posts on some specific differences between English and the new languages I’m acquiring, and my thoughts on how they might be useful in making realistic foreign dialogue without resorting to actual foreign words or dialects. Until then, maʿa s-salāma! (مَعَ السّلامَة)