Yesterday, I got a haircut. I also got a lesson in learning languages, for free. Now, that is what I call a bargain. An unexpected, weirdly coincidental bargain. Sometimes the universe does conspire to give you the best things in life for free. Well, the haircut cost money. But the free offer with it, which wasn’t even an advertised offer, was such an amazing offering.
The reason it was coincidental is because the previous evening I had watched a couple of TED Talks. One was on how to acquire a new skill while the other on learning languages. My songwriting class ended yesterday, so I thought maybe I should try learning a new language as my next hobby. I’ve had difficulties in trying to learn languages as an adult, so the ideas presented by these experts were simmering in my mind, even as I went to get my haircut the next day. It was really a cross-continental affair. And that includes both the haircut and the languages.
So, I’ve been getting my trims at this place because a) it is cheap and more importantly, b) my hairdresser can actually cut hair proportionally, which is a relief from all the unskilled ultra-fancy salons I had been to before, who invariably were either too skimpy with their time and my hair, or had bad hand-eye coordination that resulted in the affliction we’ve all had, a bad hairdo. A year ago, I had spent hours watching YouTube, scissors in hand, trying to gather the courage to do the deed myself. This sort of hair-vanity is not the result of personal vanity or the cliched consequence of being a woman. It is the typical nature of my hair, which though can be classified as curly, begs to be unique in every other way. What my current lovely hairdresser helps tremendously in doing is taming this follicular fountain with her expertly angled shears, so that my hair becomes a slightly longer cousin of what Dylan Moran likes to call “Irish hair”.
Now, simultaneously with the trichological treat, my most talented hairdresser revealed herself to be the most humble multi-linguist in the world. I study literature and culture, and thus have known a LOT of linguists who like to share their knowledge about languages much more frequently than their actual knowledge of any of the languages they discuss. I am also among the guilty for, though I have never studied linguistics specifically, I do like to show off a little more than plebeians and a little less than actors. But, this amazing lady, at the instigation of a little girl who was one of her customers, blushingly revealed to her what was this “strange” language she and her colleagues spoke in. She said it was Nepali, which I had already guessed, having heard the language often enough. And then, she went into her whole professional history of working as apprentices and employees at other salons, which, besides perfecting her technique as a coiffeur, also made her learn the various languages of the people she worked with. She can be no more than 40-45 in age, working in this profession for maybe 20 years. Yet, the languages she can speak and understand fluently(and some she can even write) are Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, English, Oriya, Marathi, Chinese, Assamese and Bhojpuri. Without going to more than half of the places where these languages are spoken.
How many of us do that? As adults, why is it so difficult for us to learn a language when it so easy when we are young? Some linguistics researchers attribute it to our extremely self-conscious attitudes towards learning languages. As a skill. As something to show off. We rely on finding the best scientific techniques, paying for ridiculously expensive classes and a lot of other faff, to do something we can just do if we leave all of that alone. This lady learned all these languages simply by being around people who could speak them. Tell me that where you study or work you do not have people who speak languages that you don’t. And yet, we rarely seem to make an effort to learn from them. The thing is, we are all passionate and generous teachers when it comes to teaching someone something we know. However, the more we formalize these learning contexts, the more we intimidate potential learners. We need to grow our language skills (including the one/ones we already know) to survive, to expand, to experience the wonders that this new language can lead us to. I envy the twinkle in my hairdresser’s eye as she proudly talked about her linguistic history. Someday, I hope to do the same.
Which languages would you like to learn?