Serial Enthusiasm and other musings

For the last year or so, I’ve spent a lot more time on one computer language – R – than I’ve spent on human languages. It’s not a question of foregoing human languages. It’s just that I’ve been able to use R in my work and so I’ve been taking the Coursera Data Science Specialization to formalize my learning and fill in gaps. One thing I’ve learned about R is while the language isn’t the best ever created, the wealth of libraries and the solid design of R Studio make it a great language for data analysis, and for extending my ability to “talk about” and “talk with” data objects. This makes me think of the natural language I’ve grown up with, English. The grammar is a mess, the spelling system is atrocious and yet the language comes in for widespread use, even and especially as a second language. But part of what makes English work is the ability of people to modify it for their own use. Every day, millions of e-mails are written in English that test the limits of what English is. If the language were French, the AcadĂ©mie would be horrified. But English is an open-source language. Everyone is free to make a contribution and if people find it useful, eventually their additions will be accepted. If not, as long as communication was effected in the moment, it’s okay.


I have not abandoned human languages altogether. Far from it. I’ve been through the full Pimsleur Dari course (both levels) twice this year and can string together basic sentences for getting food and shelter, and displaying a minimal level of politeness. And this enabled me to stumble through a fair number of the quatrains of Khayyam while getting familiar with the profusion of words that refer to wine. And of late, I’ve been working through Pimsleur Norwegian, Norwegian in 10 Minutes a Day and The Mystery of Nils, a Norwegian language learning adventure. Of the most delightful and distressing elements is how easily a Germanic language comes. While I’ve put a lot of time into Farsi/Dari, I’m sure that for far less effort I’d do far better is Oslo than Kabul, and not just because the first isn’t a war zone.


The real inspiration for coming back to say a few words, however, is a term I may have seen before, but just stumbled upon: Serial enthusiasm. There is an excellent blog post, Confessions of a Serial Enthusiast, in which Les Orchard describes his tendency to flit from project to project in the open source world as a hobbyist, even though he certainly sticks to projects he’s being paid for. His thoughts should resonate with those language addicts who retain the languages they use and need, even as they pick up and let drop other language learning projects. There might be some useful food for thought here if you’re bored with one language and eager to start another: What you devote your time to is your decision, and it should be based on getting something out of that finite amount of time allocated to us all. So you should draw a clear distinction between the languages you’re using with a specific aim in mind and those you are learning for the pleasure of learning. In this way you can be more rational about whether studying a language and letting it drop was a waste of time, or a way of finding pleasure and mental stimulation at a particular time. If your job or life requires you to use a language, you need to stick with it. But if it’s just for fun, then insisting you stick with one language till you’ve learned it to completion is like insisting you can’t have chocolate ice cream for dessert because you haven’t eaten enough vanilla yet.

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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