The first language I started to learn was Esperanto, using a kit that dated back to the 1960’s. It was very interesting, this concept of a man-made language, though I did wonder who I would speak to with it. In the end I didn’t get much past 1 to 10. And porko = pig. So the problem of conversation partners didn’t arise.
I moved onto other language learning, eventually. First I had to leave country Tasmania and move to Hobart before I could take a language course in college, which in Tasmania equates to senior high school. Over the next few years I studied Italian, Spanish and Catalan and didn’t think any more of Esperanto.
Until I met Brian. A polyglot American who was hitchhiking around Europe learning languages, Brian had recently arrived in Turkey and was already speaking a bit of the language and living with a Turkish family.
Among the many languages Brian spoke was Esperanto. So naturally, when he arrived in Ankara he made his way to the Esperanto conversation group and struck up a conversation which resulted in Brian getting a free place to stay.
I was very impressed. I don’t think I had met an American who spoke more than two languages at that point. And for someone to learn languages just for the sake of it was impressive to me. Plus being able to talk his way into staying with a Turkish family.
Brian spoke reasonable Spanish and Italian. Probably German too. And most recently he had picked up some Polish after being given a ride by a Polish truck driver who told him his town had no English teacher. Brian was glad to help out and gave lessons in exchange for board and Polish conversation. After that he made his way to Turkey which is where I met him.
This was 1997 and, while I was keen to learn Turkish and did some study with the help of a teach-yourself Turkish book, I was putting more effort into socialising, going out and working at the Turkish Daily News.
I was living with my Australian best friend who was studying at university through a student exchange, and her Turkish housemate, Mine. My Turkish didn’t get past basic conversation but Mine’s English improved to the point that she later won a job with the UN.
Brian, of course, was serious about learning Turkish. Living with a Turkish family where Esperanto was the only common language pretty much forced him to learn. But he wasn’t stopping there and was also taking classes in Kurdish which was illegal at the time, and is still very difficult to do.
I lost track of Brian and his underground Kurdish classes but I am often reminded of him. He is an example of how our minds have the capacity for learning that most of us don’t bother to find. Minds can handle multiple languages without, for the most part, getting confused. He also showed me that learning languages gets easier, at least quicker, as you learn more, as long as you’re in the right environment.
Brian also had an open mind to all languages that is worth emulating. Languages are worth studying just for themselves, just for fun, just to learn. Even if you don’t have anyone around you to practice with. And sometimes you get great friendships from that, and other rewards that are impossible to predict.
And maybe I was just a little envious I hadn’t stuck with my Esperanto kit. Who knows where I would have ended up?