How to Cheat on the Language Skills Section of Your Library Résumé

I recently came across a charming phrase at the University of Oregon, where the Ph.D. candidate in linguistics can fulfill a language requirement through knowledge of  “library languages, such as French, German, Russian, or Chinese”. One wonders how the street-wise speakers of these languages might feel about the characterization but, if we are to compile a list, these are only scratching the surface of the modern librarian’s mandatory multilingualism. The UCLA library catalog, for example, holds items in more than 400 languages. To achieve full professional proficiency in all of these would require more hours of instruction than there are hours in the average human life.

Fortunately, librarians are allowed to cheat. While there are some cases in which you might need to speak a second language at the circulation desk, many librarians and archivists only need to read languages, which is much easier. Thomas Jefferson, for example, famously spoke four languages, but read eight―a disparity that was quite common among educated people of the time. When reading, you don’t have to be able to think of the form of a word yourself, only recognize it, and if you are learning a Romance or Germanic language, many words that sound quite alien look very like English on the page. Many people who have had no luck with language classes or self-study books in the past find courses designed just for reading to be surprisingly pleasant and effective. (I can personally recommend The Reading Approach to French by HE Ford and RK Hicks.)

Normally, of course, showing up to an interview for a “bilingual” position with a résumé that just says you read Spanish is not a recipe for success, but in libraryland, “reading knowledge” of languages is a perfectly normal and, indeed, quite valuable thing to list, and it doesn’t mean you have to know every word you see. A simple test is this―pull up a major news site in another language (Le Monde in French, El Pais in Spanish, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in German, etc.) and open an article at random. If you can broadly understand it, such that you could summarize it to someone, you have a “reading knowledge” of that language. If you can’t manage that, but you can state two or three subject headings for the article (excluding proper nouns and whatever’s in the photographs), congratulations! You have a “bibliographic proficiency”, which can also be quite legitimately listed on a library résumé. Those four years of high school Spanish you laugh embarrassedly about when you can’t put two live words together to a Mexican cab driver? They just became a real job skill.

I take the word “hack” quite seriously, though, so we are going to cheat even more. What if you didn’t take a language in high school, or you want a position that requires a different language, or simply more of them? Are you condemned to climb Duolingo trees until you’re old and grey? Not at all. Enter interlinguistics, a field that studies ways to help people who do not share a common language communicate. One popular approach has been to emulate the processes used to create standard national languages like Italian out of regional dialects, but to do so more scientifically and with the purposeful intent of making the resulting language maximally easy to learn. The first major project of this kind was a language called Interlingua, published in 1951 by the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA). Its goal was to create a language that could be immediately understood, without any prior study, by the largest possible number of people. Given that the Romance languages (and English, which has more than 60% Romance vocabulary) are the most widely distributed languages globally, the linguists of IALA basically asked themselves what the language would look like that had French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and English as its “dialects”. By deriving the average linguistic “center” between these languages, they developed a language that was immediately intelligible to people who had never seen it before. More important for our present purposes, however, is that the effect works in reverse also. Several studies with language classes in Scandinavia confirmed that Interlingua students were able to successfully translate texts from Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, despite having no prior study of those languages. In some cases, they did so even when students who were studying those languages found the text too difficult (Gopsill, 1990). Learning Interlingua―which does not conjugate verbs for person, does not require adjectival agreement, has no grammatical gender, and has only three irregular verbs (with exactly one irregular form each)―can thus provide a “reading knowledge” of at least three languages (and often French and Catalan, too) for far less than the cost in time and effort of learning any one of them alone.

The success of the method developed by IALA has inspired adaptations to other language families, with two projects worth recommending to the aspiring multilingual librarian. One is Medžuslovjansky, which aims to bridge the divides between the (already closely related) Slavic languages. Due to the greater grammatical and phonological complexity of the Slavic language family, Medžuslovjansky is nowhere near as easy to learn as Interlingua, but it is nonetheless considerably simpler and more regular than any of the national Slavic languages and, with its word forms and grammatical structures poised roughly evenly between them, once again permits many languages to be successfully read for the “price” of learning just one. Every hour put in counts toward reading knowledge or bibliographic proficiency for Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian/Macedonian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian.

Taking this same approach, SamSkandinavisk distills the common elements of the (likewise closely related) North Germanic languages―Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. This language, too, presents a more complicated grammar than Interlingua, but not intimidatingly so (Norwegian already being one of the easiest national languages for English-speakers to learn). Its word forms and spellings acquaint the student with the common Scandinavian vocabulary in a fashion designed to maximize recognition of words across all three languages.

The number of speakers of each of these interlanguages―Interlingua, Medžuslovjansky, and SamSkandinavisk―is quite small, made up primarily of linguistics enthusiasts. Used as tools to gain easy reading access to other languages, however, they are powerful force multipliers, enabling the up-and-coming language librarian to competently evaluate, catalog, and recommend materials in a wide variety of languages for a fraction of the study time that would be required using a more conventional approach. So long as “reading knowledges” are the limit of your linguistic ambitions, it is a bargain well worth making.

(And your secret is safe with me.)


Race MoChridhe is an MLIS student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. You can find more of his work through his website, racemochridhe.com, where those interested in further information and resources about auxiliary languages (or a penpal for one) are heartily invited to contact the author.


Works Cited

Gopsill, F. P. (1990). International languages: a matter for Interlingua. Sheffield, England: British Interlingua Society.

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