Byron in Armenia – or why learning a foreign language does not have to mean being a language nerd

I remember I used to be very impressed when people told me they learned Hebrew or Chinese. I thought if they learned something so difficult and “unusual” like Hebrew or Greek or Hungarian, they must really have been people with incredible language learning skills. I know that people with considerable experience in language learning see it differently, but in the collective thinking it is generally assumed that if you learned a foreign language well enough, you must be some sort of genius. And geniuses, for most of us, pretty usual and fallible human beings, are not exactly normal people, so we would not measure our achievements by their standards. If they managed to do something exceptionally well, it is because it was meant to be so: they are, after all, geniuses.

Certainly being a polyglot, which in my very subjective personal understanding means speaking at least four languages fluently and almost flawlessly, is a magnificent feat, especially if you were not lucky enough to grow up in four different countries with multilingual parents, learning languages as you drank your mother’s milk. But for some reason I have not developed a great sympathy for the many polyglot stars who have impressed the world with Youtube videos showing how they speak in seventeen languages. Some will say it is envy because of the success of these admirable people. I am not sure. It is just that learning a few basic phrases in thirty-seven languages is not exactly my definition of polyglotism. I know the thrill of wanting to learn all languages and speaking in tongues, because at 35 I believe I have tried to learn every single European language, not to mention Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Kurdish and Turkish and probably some other ones I cannot even recall now.

It should be actually obvious, because our time and our intellectual resources and even our curiosity and motivations are limited, but there is one thing that language enthusiasts often fail to grasp or refuse to admit to themselves: you cannot possibly learn to speak ten languages fluently at near native proficiency (or at least C1 level). And you won’t become fluent in 3 months. 3 months might be just enough learn to babble a few sentences if you study very very intensively, and it will be enough to impress some people who have little or no knowledge of this particular language. I know that there are some notable exceptions, but most of us, for the most different reasons, will not be able to achieve fluency or near fluency in more than five languages at best, and that would be already an exceptional result which would set us apart from at least 95% of the people on this planet. It is not that I am an extremely practical person that is calculating the marginal utility of everything I do. But learning to tell my name and where I am from and that I don’t speak the language very well in broken Romanian or Basque would just be boring for me – and ultimately, a waste of my very precious time. I just don’t want to spend all my spare hours playing with memory cards or with the latest language app. Language is intrinsically personal interaction. I should be able to interact with the people in their language without necessarily resorting to English or at least, if there is no such possibility, I want to learn enough of a language to be able to enjoy movies and simple books at the very minimum.

* * *

Lord Byron, the English poet, actually never set foot in Armenia. He had left England forever in April 1816, at the age of 28, and arrived in Venice in November that year. He was taking refuge abroad trying to find solace from all the scandals at home. In Venice, where in November the preparations for the Carnival in February were already taking place, he lead a moderately dissolute life, enjoying partying and the company of women. He was possibly the closest thing to a rockstar that you could get at the beginning of the XIX century and the ladies of the Venetian good society would recognize him on the street. One of his lovers had previously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, which sounds like he displayed the whole spectrum of the dark triad traits that even back then made bad boys so irresistible for most young women just like nowadays.

In the midst of the partying excesses, however, Byron found, almost accidentally, an intellectual pastime: “I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention”, wrote he in a letter from that period. He had visited the Armenian Monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni and began learning Armenian with the monks, going to the monastery and studying every day. A few weeks later, however, he was still struggling with the alphabet: “My Armenian lectures still continue. I have about mastered thirty of the thirty-eight cursed scratches of Mesrob, the maker of alphabets, and some words of one syllable. My lessons are in the Psalms and Father Pasqual is a very attentive preceptor”. The friar and Byron were using Bible translations, as it must have been common for centuries, as the base for learning a foreign language. By the end of December, Byron had acquired enough Armenian to be able to casually chat with monks: “In the mornings I go over in my gondola to babble Armenian with the friars of the convent of St. Lazarus, and to help one of them in correcting the English of an English and Armenian grammar which he is publishing”. Over the next two months, Byron had progressed enough to be able to translate some passages from Classical Armenian into English and to compose some poetical exercises in Armenian: the volume Lord Byron’s Armenian Exercises and Poetry was published by the Mekhitarist press, the press of the monastery, in 1870.In fact Byron helped, not only with editing the English, but also financially, the publication of the first English Armenian grammar.

At the beginning of March 1817, during the Carnival celebration, three months afer having begun with Armenian, Byron wrote: “The Armenian Grammar is published – but my Armenian studies are suspended for the present – till my head aches a little less”. For whatever reason, he never went back to the Armenian monastery and never resumed his study of the language. Byron certainly did not acquire fluency in Armenian in the three months he (rather intensively, one has to say) applied himself to it. But he took the most of what he could at the time, learning not only a few phrases in the language, but learning enough of the language to be able to appreciate Armenian culture and literature. Certainly the little Armenian he acquired and probably later forgot did not make him a polyglot, which Byron probably was anyway, since beside English he was rather fluent in Italian and had studied French together with the standard Greek and Latin. But the experience of Byron shows us that learning a language is more an enriching life experience rather than some sort of purely intellectual skill. You don’t have to be a nerd to be a polyglot.

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