How many times have you heard people complain, "It's all Greek to me," when they can't understand something? What is it about Greek that makes people think it is unintelligible?
Some of the languages we offer are seen as particularly exotic. Greek, Hebrew, Swahili, and Zulu come to mind.
Yet every language has to deal with the same real-world situations and help people understand what happened, when it happened, and who was involved.
On the one hand, language is far from a mere set of rules. Indeed, a language is a window to the culture that has, over centuries, developed certain sounds, inflections, and idioms as a form of communication.
On the other hand, every language is systematic - an organized system. A language is not an odd collection of unrelated sounds and words. Each language has patterns, and these patterns help us solve the puzzles of a language that is new to us. We need to approach languages as careful observers, looking for these patterns.
Think of the way that a jazz musician improvises. To the uninitiated, some tunes seem to make absolutely no sense; as though the chord changes are some random collection of complex sounds.
Yet the jazz musician can find the melody, recognize themes, transcribe the chords, and convey a variation on the theme to others.
Activist and social critic Dr. Cornel West often compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be.
Yet the basic patterns and structures of music must be learned, first, before they can be discerned and improvised upon. In order to run, one first learns to walk.
In the same way, you know that someone who runs is a runner, not a runser. Someone who reads is a reader. Someone who teaches is a teacher. You may not know that English has about forty-two sounds that we use to make thousands of words, but you intuitively know which sounds work where because you have learned the rules.
As the authors of How Biblical Languages Work: A Student's Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek put it, there are English words such as say, stay, and stray; but not srtay. We can confidently say that, after an s, there can be tr sounds, but not rt sounds. English also has the pattern splash, but not lpsash. Many words end with the ng sound (ring, rang, rung, tongue), but no English word starts with that sound.
Other languages may have sounds and patterns that are different from English - but they also choose from a limited set of possibilities.
To quote Dr. West, "You have to learn, you have to listen, you have to adjust, you have to adapt, you have to be flexible."
All the while, language will become your guide to the ways in which different cultures express not only ideas, but emotions. By exposing you to every aspect of the human condition, language allows you to study the past, understand the present, and ponder the future.
What a journey it will be.