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What Makes a Language “Useful” is Often Unpredictable

By Colleen “Sonya” Wood | Published: March 21, 2017

Some say that it’s valuable to learn German for a future earnings boost, or that it’s important for people to study Arabic for national security objectives. Mandarin is useful, insofar as it has the most native speakers in the world. Of course, you can’t understate the significance of English, which is the official language of 67 countries and is spoken by some 1.5 billion people worldwide.

All these reasons—economic, military, prevalence—are legitimate metrics for judging the usefulness of a language. But are these factors really all that learning a world language is “good for”?

The question of usefulness didn’t cross my mind when I first started learning Russian at age 15. At the time it didn’t occur to me that Russian is the eighth most commonly spoken language in the world, and I couldn’t have anticipated that the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations would bring the language back to the forefront of the national security dialogue. Rather, at the time I thought only that Cyrillic would come in handy as a secret code for passing notes during class.  

Years of university-level Russian classes, where the subject matter and textbooks often bent toward political crises and current events, reminded me that learning Russian had an end-game, that the language was only as valuable as its utility.

When I decided to join the Peace Corps after university, it was important to me that I could live and work for two years in a country where I could use my Russian. When I found out I would complete my Peace Corps service in Kyrgyzstan, I was over the moon, while most everyone I knew was confused. Few could point out the mountainous Central Asian country on a map, let alone pronounce its name.

Kyrgyzstan, a small country barely the size of North Dakota, is home to many ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and traditions. Kyrgyzstan was once a part of the Soviet Union, and like several other former Soviet countries, Russian is still commonly spoken. In line with its social history, and in order to accommodate its diversity, Kyrgyzstan maintains a careful linguistic balance: Russian is Kyrgyzstan’s “official” language, used for government purposes, while Kyrgyz is the country’s “national” language.

Colleen with the other English teachers at her school, where classes are taught in both Russian and Kyrgyz.

Before I left, people asked me whether I would study Kyrgyz as part of my Peace Corps training. Their logic was that since I could already communicate fluently with my host family and colleagues, what was the point of learning an obscure (and so, arguably, less “useful”) Turkic language?

If we measure Kyrgyz against the same metrics as German, Arabic, Chinese or English, it’s difficult to argue that it is a valuable language. My time in Kyrgyzstan has taught me, however, that these criteria don’t entirely dictate which world languages are most worth studying.

What makes a language “useful” is entirely situational, and entirely about the people you’ll interact with.

It wasn’t until I participated in the second World Nomad Games last September (think Olympics meets Central Asia, with a dash of flaming horsemen) that I fully realized this.

Colleen giving an interview in Kyrgyz at the World Nomad Games in September 2016.

People from all over the Turkic-speaking world showed up to a tiny town in Kyrgyzstan for horse races, yurt-building competitions and eagle hunting. In the down time between games, participants and spectators had plenty of time to strike up conversations and make friends. I had expected most of these chats to happen in English, or even Russian, both arguably “international” languages, but was stunned at the extent to which people stuck to their native languages.

There were Kyrgyz/Turkish conversations, Kyrgyz/Azeri conversations, Kazakh/Yakut conversations—and nobody batted an eye at the magic of these connections.

An Azerbaijani teenager climbed onto my balcony to say hello after snagging an armful of peaches from the tree growing outside my hotel room; the word “selfie” is universal, though the rest of our chat was a mix of Turkish, Kyrgyz and Azeri. A young Turkish man was very patient with my rusty Turkish as I complimented his traditional hat, called a kalpak across Eurasia, though his was made of velvet, unlike the Kyrgyz felt version. The smiley coach of the Kazakh mangala team winked and told me she didn’t know how to play the board game well when I asked for advice on strategy. A Kyrgyz reporter asked me whether I felt uncomfortable playing an “intellectual sport” as a woman, and finally nodded in recognition after several attempts to explain that there’s no reason women can’t play games like chess or toguz kumalak.

Making friends with an athlete from Azerbaijan, before negotiating for a selfie in a mix of languages.

It still gives me chills to think about the thousands of people from all over Central Asia who were able to communicate easily and mutually celebrate nomadic culture wholeheartedly. Though English or Russian might have been a more obvious lingua franca for the event, organizers and participants were proud to operate in Kyrgyz, a language that doesn’t even break the top 100 list of languages by number of native speakers.

When deciding to pursue a new world language, let go of the numbers game and overly strategic thinking about the economic payoff or security value of a language. You never know where life will take you, and you never know when you’ll need an obscure Turkic language to win over a crowd.

Note: The opinions expressed do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government, Peace Corps or the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.

About the Author

Colleen "Sonya" Wood currently lives in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps volunteer. In Kyrgyzstan, she shares a classroom with a local English teacher and gives trainings on EFL methodologies. Before the Peace Corps, she was a villager and counselor at Lesnoe Ozero for seven years. Read more about her time in Kyrgyzstan and her travels around Eurasia on her blog, Prekrasno. Find her on Twitter @colleenewood.

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