Saturday, January 28, 2012

Learning Languages

Learning languages has always been an interest of mine.  When I am going somewhere new, I try to gain at least a rudimentary awareness of the language.  I consider it a gesture of respect to greet people in their own tongue, especially when I am a guest among them. 

The process also feeds my own curiosity about other cultures.  Languages reveal ways of thinking.  In the quest to expand and deepen my understanding of humanity, new vocabulary and syntax provide a window on new points of view.  Learning a fair amount of French, German, and Arabic and a limited sampling of Bengali, Czech, and Turkish have been a fascinating challenge.

When I had to learn organic chemistry and pharmacology, I approached them as language acquisition.  Chemicals are words and reactions that connect them are syntax.  These sentences communicate knowledge and describe relationships.  Behind them, lies a worldview.  Elements form larger, more complex structures.  What goes into a reaction must come out again.  Processes are directional, occur along arrows, and are spurred by catalysts.

In the world of chemistry, there is building, balance, and progress.  There is also inflexibility, little room for the spontaneous or unexpected.  Descriptions are dry and rational, often lacking a creative flare.  However, even these names hold meaning beyond their surface.  Labeling the gain of electrons as “reduction” inspires a mental stretch and must be paired with oxidation in the necessary give-and-take of natural phenomena.

The names of elements evoke a history of achievement, discovery, and myth.  Many are named after places, such as Polonium (Poland), Ytterbium (a town in Sweden), Ruthenium (from the Latin for Russia), Hafnium (from the Latin for Copenhagen).  Others are named after people, such as Curium, Einsteinium, Mendelevium.  My personal favorites evoke characters in Greek mythology, such as Tantalum, Niobium, Titanium.

Consider also the step from chemical names to drug names.  Chemical names describe components and structure.  They suggest certain characteristics, bonds, and acid-base properties.   When marketing gets a hold of them, a transformation takes place that deviates wildly from the straightforward pathway of chemical composition.  Drug names can be trademarked, patented, and claimed for profit.  They are crafted to evoke feelings and associations in consumers.

When I was memorizing hundreds of these names, my main concern was how to tell Clonidine, Clozaril, Klonipin, Clorhexidine, Clonazepam and others apart and recall that two of these are actually the same compound.  Now that they roll off the tongue, I have a chance to step back and think about how they have shaped my own synaptic connections as I have assimilated them.  And to think about the meanings embedded in another new language.


  1. I love languages. I just have zero ability. My brain has two containers for language. English, and not-English. My German and French get muddled if I'm not careful, the little Spanish I know gets confused with my French. When people speak, I can usually follow the rough nature of the conversation, but I have serious trouble responding with anything but memorized phrases.

  2. Computer science has its own languages though, or at least dialects. You may have more ability than you give yourself credit for!

  3. Not really. A computer "language" isn't a language. It's a mathematical formalism. Even then, I don't spend more than 10-15% of my time with code, and then I've got a book open next to me. Almost all of my time is spent doing formal mathematics on paper.