So, about this post title: for all practical intents and purposes, I'm still incredibly Anglo-centric. I speak fluent English, fluent English, and fluent English. (And sometimes not even fluent English, as those who've heard me attempt coherence at 5am can readily attest.) The reason I can call myself a language geek is because that term doesn't necessarily say anything about my skill with languages, just the enthusiasm with which I attack them. That's the first step, though.
Languages... are cool. I never thought I'd say this. Languages are cool, and I love learning them. I pick up snatches here and there as I can, trying to occasionally read the backlog of an IRC channel in Chinese, trying to respond in (broken) Spanish to a Latin American contributor's question, figuring out how to set up my computer so 我可以写在中文 (I can write in Chinese - albeit with really ugly fonts right now) oder tippen der Deutsch Eszett (type (not sure if I picked the right word for that) the German ß - which I still copy-paste each time - umlauts too, because I haven't figured out how to type them yet) o escribir con acento español (or write with Spanish accents - again, copy-paste for the ñ), and reading, reading, reading - lurking in IRC channels, reading wiki pages, looking through mailing list archives of languages that fascinate me.
Most of what I'm doing now is playing. Actually, all of it's playing; I'm just getting myself used to the strange letters, shapes, sounds, and sentence structures. When little things catch my curiosity, I look them up, and don't stress about remembering them. It's not like there's an exam at the end of term. When you have a richer world to be exposed to, the rules make much more sense in retrospect; I found a Tagalog grammar-book while browsing through a bookstore and went oh, that's why they say that, and now I've forgotten what it is I'd seen - but that's all right; I know where the bookstore is, where the book is, what it's called, and that I can reach out and learn it when I need to.
I'm surrounded by puzzles, and I'm slowly accumulating tools that let me solve them; while sitting in the children's section of the library (waiting for Melanie to get books on Ancient China for her research paper) I sat and figured out what "Strauße stecken bei Gefahr den Kopf in den Sand" meant - no dictionary, no grammar book, nothing except the rest of the entirely-in-German children's book and lots of guessing. "Kopf" meant "head," I knew; "in den sand" was almost certainly "in the sand." What would you do with your head in the sand? "Stecken" sounded like "sticking," you could stick your head in the sand, okay.
I knew the letter ß was pronounced "ss," so what thing that sounded like a "strausse" - wait, astrausse.... ostrausse... ostrich! Ostriches stick their head in the sand - right, they do! (Oh, look, a picture of an ostrich nearby. Win!) And "bei Gefahr?" Ostriches, I remembered, put their head in the sand when they're afraid of danger. So I guessed "bei Gefahr" meant something like "when they are scared" - maybe "Gefahr" --> "fahr" --> fear? Close enough. As best as I can tell going to the dictionaries later, "Strauße stecken bei Gefahr den Kopf in den Sand" roughly translates to "Ostriches stick (when in danger) their heads in the sand." Silly? Yes. Slow? Absolutely. Managed to get the understanding that I wanted from the resources I had on hand? Oh yeah.
Languages are about communication; communication is about communities. Can I participate in a community that speaks that language? That's my gauge. For English, the answer is "yes, unless it's over a conference call with unfamiliar voices, or in a big room with many speakers that you can't keep up with lipreading, unless there's a text backchannel, which makes everything okay." For Mandarin, I can get by at dinners where I don't have to keep up with the conversation, with some polite phrases and enough vocabulary and grammar to ask about various dishes (with a lot of pointing) and compliment the chef. For ASL, it's "yes, if there's auditory augmentation and I don't have to sign back." It's getting better over time - now I can read a Chinese IRC channel while asking kaio questions about colloquialisms on the side; a few years ago I wouldn't even have been able to do that, and I can kind of understand American movies my dad gets Chinese DVDs for, because the English audio I'm able to hear plus the Chinese subtitles I'm able to read somehow combine to give me just enough information to snap some segments of the plot into focus.
Here's what I'm doing: I'm getting ready for the opportunity to learn ridiculously fast. And at some point, the little snatches of learning I've picked up for a given language ("where I am") and a sudden reason for wanting to be able to speak it better ("where I want to be") and the opportunity to make that knowledge jump ("a way to get there") will coincide. The more I learn and the more I get myself to want to learn, the more opportunities will pop up, because I'll be able to use more things to learn the things I want to learn; I'll be able to meet more resources at their level, and so they'll turn into resources instead of "well, what's that thing over there?"
And then... click. Things will (with a lot of hard work) fall into place; when I sit down and actually focus on studying that language, I'll be able to make sense of the pieces I already know. The foundation's a lot easier to build when you've got a bunch of bricks already lying nearby and have seen a lot of walls before. At some point, I'll be able to say "look, if I had two weeks where I did nothing else but study Spanish, I could probably give a preplanned and rehearsed technical presentation in it," or "if I audited Italian IV at a local college next semester, I could probably read Calvino in the original as my class project," and on occasion, when those sorts of opportunities come up, I'll be able to say "...so what the heck, I'll do it!" And I will.
No, I probably can't self-study German or Spanish or Tagalog or anything else effectively in isolation, but I'm starting to be less surprised by their translations when they're typed. My Mandarin is atrocious from lack of use, but the sounds of the language ceased to be foreign to me 2 years ago (my family speaks Fookien, not Mandarin, so Mandarin used to sound really weird) and I could understand snatches of what the Chinese delegates in Singapore were saying. I haven't spoken Japanese to anyone since high school, but I can map the subtitles to syllables in the anime my cousin Melanie is starting to get into. I can barely sign ASL sentence fragments back at people, but I can sort of understand what they are saying - at least enough to be able to explain a little of the structure of the language to my hearing friends who haven't seen sign language before. It gets better. It always gets better.
I love languages. They help me reach the people I want to connect to. They help me make my world a little bigger. And they're fun to play with. And they're also great places for learning-metaness - I mean, have you ever looked at all the different approaches language-teaching materials take to the exact same verb conjugation in the same language? By looking at the difference between how the methods teach, you can see their assumptions of the ways people learn - and that in itself is fascinating to tinker with and dissect, too.
Time to go back and study.
Was is das? Das ist ein Buch. Was is dies? Dies ist auch ein Buch. Ist das auch ein Buch? Nein, es ist ein Fehler-Meldung. Er ist lang... ich mag rpmlint nicht! --Mel's First Adventures In German