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Trip of the Tongue

Recently, I finished reading Elizabeth Little's Trip of the Tongue, a sort-of travelogue about languages in the United States. It's an engaging read, if a bit superficial, with most chapters having one or more laugh-out-loud moments captured in a kind of dead-pan prose.

It begins as a travelogue: she goes here, she goes there, she hires guides, visits museums, etc. She has various epiphanies and misfortunes and shares what she learns along the way.

A major theme of the book is how language policy has served, usually to reduce the vitality of minority languages, but in some cases to protect languages. She also describes conditions in some places that have preserved languages -- and how some languages are surviving in spite of the overall trend toward global English.

Toward the end, she reveals more of what her agenda originally was and shares some experiences that were foundational for her wanting to do this project. Some of these experiences really resonated with me, as someone who has always had a life-long passion for languages. She speaks of her excitement with traveling to other countries, only to feel a sense of detachment and depersonalization after discovering that she was always categorized as "other" as soon as she opened her mouth (or even beforehand, just based on how she looked). She describes being in Montreal playing a game she calls "How Long Will It Take Them To Figure Out I'm a Native English-Speaker. My record so far is five French words." She describes her growing unease and horror at being a freak and her palpable relief to get back into the US. I've had similar experiences.

I studied Spanish in High School and then majored in Spanish as an undergraduate, dreaming that I would be able to be genuinely fluent in Spanish. Ha. My ten years of grueling study, memorizing irregular verbs and obscure minutiae of grammar left me barely competent to understand native speakers -- and to make myself understood. But not without leaving myself open for the ridicule of native speakers. And then I learned Esperanto.

I wrote about my experience learning Esperanto several years ago, which is still entirely valid. Esperanto provided the experience I was yearning for: an opportunity to become truly fluent in another language. But also, access to an international community of people distributed all over the world who were interested in meeting and interacting with people from other cultures. I don't have a huge number of close friends in Esperantujo, but a more than half of my ~500 friends in Facebook are Esperanto speakers. And the fact that we share a common language makes me automatically closer to them than most of my other face-to-face friends. I know that many of them would put me up in their house without a moment's hesitation -- based on the language that we share. And I wonder if she ever even heard of Esperanto...