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My children were exasperated. 

About once a minute, I hit the pause button on the TV remote, just long enough so I could catch the French word scrolling across the bottom of the screen in the subtitles.

I was watching Zone Blanche, a new French TV thriller on “Netflix.” 

My family watches a lot of foreign films and television – everything from Finnish crime dramas to Australian soap operas about obstetricians.  Usually, we use English subtitles for the Finnish and Australian TV shows so we know what they’re saying. 

The great thing about Netflix is that you can set the subtitles in many different languages. Now I was using the French ones. 

One of my latest schemes to keep up my high school and college French has been to watch French television but with French subtitles, not English ones.

Despite a lifetime of studying French, I still only understand about half of what is being said in French movies and on TV shows.  The actors speak too quickly, use slang, and tend to mumble or abbreviate many words.

However, when I use the French subtitles, my comprehension goes up to maybe 80, sometimes 90 percent.  The only drawback is my having to pause now and then to re-read the subtitles.  Hence my frustrated progeny.

I have no idea why I have this obsessive curiosity about foreign languages, but I do.

My first French lesson was when I was in first grade.  Someone gave me an LP record with basic phrases in French (I still have the liner notes), and I was hooked. My Catholic elementary school offered French classes in seventh grade (I still have that textbook as well), and I continued on in high school and then throughout college. 

Then, during and after college, I lived in Israel for almost two years, during which time I took two six-month-long courses in Hebrew

I got pretty good with Hebrew (since, unlike with French, I learned the language while living in the country) and enjoyed it tremendously.  

Over the years, I tried to keep that up as well, subscribing to so-called “Easy Hebrew” newspapers like the now-defunct Sha’ar Laymathil and watching Mabat newscasts on the Internet. Recently, Netflix has begun to broadcast Israeli TV series as well – such as Fauda, Bnei Aruba and  Shtisel — and this helps. 

My latest language to mangle is German. 

About six years ago, relatively late in life, I began to visit Germany once a year on business and was entranced by the people and the language.  

Before that, I had only passed through Germany a few times as a tourist, and I didn’t realize just how much fun Germans and Germany can be. Last year, I took a course in college German at my local community college and am about to enroll in the second year course. Now I am watching German TV shows, like the popular sci-fi thrill Dark, with German subtitles (albeit with much less success).

So, I now speak a little bit of three foreign languages. 

I live in the United States so the opportunity to speak French, Hebrew or German is fairly limited. I do travel more than most so I’ve visited Europe and Israel in recent years, but mostly I am confined to online Skype tutors and Netflix TV series.

And the question everyone asks me is: why do it?

Why bother learning foreign languages you’ll never really need

Even German friends think I’m a bit daft and say they would never have stuck with German if they didn’t have to.  All those case endings and separable verbs are enough to drive anyone crazy.

And I don’t really have a good answer. 

I guess I enjoy the “wider world” and the variety of cultures and peoples found in it. By studying foreign languages, you learn a lot more about a culture than you can just watching from the outside, as a tourist.

Plus, it beats playing those “cognitive enhancement” video games I see on Instagram. I tell myself that conjugating German verbs will stave off dementia for a few years.

I also take comfort from the fact that there are others like me, people who enjoy learning foreign languages even if they’re not very good at them. To my surprise, many of the students in my German class were older people who discovered Germany later in life and just wanted to learn more about the culture.

In addition there are entire Youtube channels dedicated to us linguaphiles. One of my favorites is Langfocus, hosted by a linguist named Paul Jorgensen who teaches in Japan.   

Paul has fascinating videos about how and why Norwegian is different from Danish and Swedish, the difference between creole and pidgin, Greek vocabulary in English, tips on learning multiple languages at once, the ins and outs of Tagalog, and so on. His videos are addictive.

In Paul’s videos and in my own meagre efforts to become multilingual, I’ve discovered both the complexity and wonderful simplicity of human communication. There is a built-in structure to any language – German especially! – and by comparing and contrasting these structures you begin to see how different groups solve common communication problems.

But in the end, for me at least, learning languages is simply fun. 

I still get a thrill whenever I walk into a shop in a foreign country, do my best to order a donut or coffee in the local language, and then stand in amazement when the clerk behind the counter actually understands what I am requesting. 

My gosh, I tell myself, it actually works!  

And that, more than anything, is what keeps me going – keeps me watching French TV shows in slow motion, pausing every couple of seconds so I can read the French subtitles. 

Even if it does drive my children to distraction. 

Robert J. Hutchinson writes frequently on the intersection of politics and ideas. He is the author of the upcoming book, What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination.

Robert Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson is the author of many works of popular history, including, most recently, What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination (2020). https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1621578860