English is a difficult language to learn. Growing up monolingual, I was able to pick up German, Greek, and Hebrew (and other semitic languages) without too much trouble, through intensive schooling. I have to wonder if those learning English as a foreign language don’t have a much more difficult task. The other day I was looking at a document in Icelandic (don’t ask), and marveling how I simply couldn’t penetrate it, although it is Indo-European. Then I sat down to read an article in English. The topic was of interest to me but it was clear that the content wasn’t written by native speakers. Indeed, it turns out the authors were from an Indonesia university. The journal was published by an Indonesian press. It’s peer reviewed, but those who run it aren’t native English speakers.
Interestingly enough, although the article wasn’t in the field in which I was technically trained, I was able to follow what the authors were saying. Partially it was because of my familiarity with the topic, which I’d read about before, but partially it was that you can read English without the direct and indirect articles that are our usual guideposts, and with the wrong verb tenses and declensions. It is possible. You wouldn’t want this, I suspect, if you were building a rocket carrying people into space, but it isn’t that much different from trying to read the instructions that come with most devices that are manufactured in nations where English is a foreign—very foreign—form of communication. I admire their pluck. I still recall enough German that I can get through some documents without generating more gray hairs, but I wouldn’t dare try to write to someone in it. Nein.
Languages are fascinating elements of human culture. Although there was no literal tower of Babel to create them, our species, in isolated areas, learned a variety of different ways to communicate verbally. It’s only with travel that these isolated groups met and generally they try to talk, unless they simply kill strangers on sight. We want to understand one another. We all know that our language learning skills are at their peak during our very youngest years. Brains get ossified into using one language to think and as you age it’s harder to pick up new ones. Still, we have that old isolationist tendency hardwired as well. Us versus them. And if we can’t understand we quickly distrust. Language study is probably one of the best ways to ensure peace. If we can’t do that, at least we can try to read our language through the eyes of someone who’s made the effort, even if it’s difficult for us.