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Earlier this semester, in a moment of quarter-life-crisis inspired activity, I made a list of nineteen things to accomplish before I turn nineteen. My birthday is at the end of June so I should be about halfway through… I have probably completed a grand total of three so far, but there is still time yet – I have not lost hope! One of the challenges I have been getting on with is specifically language related.
I decided to learn how to say, and write, the word ‘hello’ in one hundred different languages. I came up with this task fairly impulsively, without putting any particular thought into how feasible this would be. At the time I didn’t even know if there was a hundred different ways to say hello (there are…so many more). I don’t really know why I thought this would be a good idea, perhaps some vague notion of acquiring some kind of interesting/educational hobby, and after I wrote it down in my diary I gradually became aware of how big a task this might turn out to be.
So I began fairly promptly, still inspired by my own good intentions, and wrote a list. Hello, hola, bonjour, ciao, guten tag…good start! I thought to myself. Other Hispanic languages were fairly easy to tick off (Catalan: hola, Galician: ola, Portuguese: olá), and I managed to drag nĭ hăo or 你好 from the memory of my after school Mandarin lessons back in year seven.
And then… what next? Suddenly the entire arena of modern languages became available: I knew I had to reach one hundred, but where to start? If doing this challenge has taught me anything (practical), it’s that the learning of languages is actually incredibly accessible nowadays through readily available resources on the internet – you just have to want to do it. There are so many people who speak Albanian (tungjatjeta), Thai (สวัสดี or sawatdee), Croatian (bok), or literally any language you can think of who are willing to share their language and culture with you through videos online. This challenge has been humbling in some respects; we in England are notoriously bad at language learning as a country, but as language learners, we pride ourselves on our ability hold a conversation in the language of our neighbouring countries. Few of us could venture outside of the main world languages; what about those gradually being eroded by more dominant dialects, like Quechua (napaykullayki), spoken in remote regions of Mexico, or if our interests lie closer to home, how many of us could say hello in traditional Gaelic (dia dhuit)?
I’ve found that this challenge isn’t just for edifying purposes either – it’s actually very satisfying to tick a few languages off each week, and the wall of words I have built on my wardrobe grows every now and then to chart my progress. I love the challenge of writing in character-based languages – Laos (ສະບາຍດີ or sabaidee) is particularly pretty, as is Hindi (नमस्त or namaste). That said, the Cyrillic script of Russian (здравствуйте…still working on the pronunciation) and Bulgarian (Здравейте…likewise) has proven to be particularly difficult to get to grips with!
As of the 25th March, I’ve learnt 37 languages so far and counting. Being able to say hello offers a tiny glimpse into a culture and a language I would not otherwise have, and who knows, it may even come in handy one day if I ever travel to Hawaii (aloha) or the Philippines (kumusta) or wherever else my challenge takes me. I’ll keep you updated when I reach my goal of a hundred!
By Mary McGowan
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham