French-speaking Vikings (and why pink really isn’t a colour)

The blog is called Live with Less, Live with More for a reason: it’s not just about minimalism and its benefits (which are manifold), but also more — what you can add to your life instead of acquiring a whole lot of stuff. And the “more” that I’m talking about — I’ll get to that at some point. Hopefully before the end of this blog post.

One of the things I like to do is learn languages. I’m fortunate enough to have learnt French at school. At first blush, my French lessons seem like a very inefficient use of my time; I spent three years in French class at school, and I have spent a grand total of two days in Paris. Yes, I shall rectify this situation when I can. But two days divided by three years is not very much — the return on investment (ROI) is appallingly low.

Or so it would seem.

Several years ago I flew to Argentina for three days (as you do). I hadn’t expected to go there, it was an emergency last-minute frantic call from my boss — could I please go to Buenos Aires? Sure. You pay, I fly.

It’s a long flight from Melbourne to Buenos Aires (actually, it was four flights — Melbourne –> Sydney –> Auckland –> Santiago –> Buenos Aires). You fly over the nether regions of the South Pacific; there’s a big chunk of Antarctica nearby that no nation has bothered to claim because it’s too far from anything, and you hope to God that nothing happens to the plane, because you are south of everything and they will never recover the wreckage. Chilean merlot is wonderful for alleviating any anxiety.

And on the last flight, with a head full of jetlag, after I’d seen the Andes in all their grandeur and talked with my new friend, I decided to learn some Spanish. This was the first flight of the four I’d taken with Spanish lessons. Two hours later, I could make basic conversation in Spanish, courtesy of my French lessons. Thus, when I got lost walking from Calle Florida to Calle Murrijo (don’t! — it’s longer than it looks on the map) I could decipher the number of blocks I had to walk and the direction to go.

Perhaps it helps that English is such a screwy language. You just have to go back to 1066 to understand that; England was invaded by French-speaking Vikings. That’s right, French-speaking Vikings. French. Speaking. Vikings.

If being invaded by French-speaking Vikings won’t screw up your language completely, what will?

But learning French and Spanish (and along the way some Japanese, and eventually some Danish) opened me to new ways of thinking. If you only speak English, you can only think English-language thoughts. Case in point: in Denmark in the winter, it is perfectly natural and normal to find a lake or body of water (usually covered in ice), take off all your clothes (yes, get naked) and go for a short swim. Yes, Danes often like to go skinny dipping in a lake covered with ice.

For most English speakers, this is an alien idea. For starters, being naked in a public place shocks and upsets a lot of people in the English language world; I can’t see the fuss, but I understand where people are coming from. Secondly, most of us have had mothers who would insist we would die of pneumonia if we were out in the cold for too long; to subject yourself deliberately to cold weather is unthinkable. For us, cold is the enemy; for Danes, they’re familiar with its beneficial effects.

Learning Danish was wonderful while I lived there. Yes, nearly all Danes speak excellent English; but addressing them in their own language opened doors that wouldn’t have opened had I only spoke English. One fascinating piece of trivia: there is no word for “pink” in Danish (the word is lyserød, which means “light red”). The whole concept of “pink” as a separate colour to “red” is an alien one for Danish, and a lot of other languages. Pink is just an idea we made up. “Light blue” and “light green” don’t need separate words, why “light red”?

So what have I gained from learning languages? Firstly, I’ve gained new ways of thinking: I can challenge fixed ideas more easily, such as the existence of pink or the dangers of skinny dipping in icy waters. And I’ve also gained some small measure of understanding and appreciation for other cultures; what is “obvious” to us may be not at all obvious to others.

And that was worth my three year investment in French classes. 🙂

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