There are many ways genealogists can benefit from learning a foreign language. On this page, I'll show you those benefits, and I'll point you to some resources that I've used in my own studies. Incidentally, don't have to learn a language to fluency in order to do research. Even just learning to type in a foreign alphabet and recognize some genealogy vocabulary will help.
If you participate in entering records into a database to make them searchable for others, learning a foreign language will make you indispensable in opening the way, not only for your own research, but for everyone doing research in the same language.
Obviously, knowing the vocabulary to be able to read the titles and field names of foreign documents makes indexing foreign records possible. But if you really want to be good at it, you'll need to learn to write in your ancestors' language. Being able to read old handwriting is hard enough in your native language, but adds a great deal of power to being able to index in other languages. Learning to actually write in your ancestors' language will train your brain to be able to read their handwriting more easily.
Knowing your ancestors' language will make it a whole lot easier to understand the things you're finding and interpret them correctly. There isn't much point to searching--or even having what you're looking for right in front of you--if you don't have a way to know what's there.
As difficult as it can be to do record search in your native language, it's even harder in a foreign language. But if you know that language, at least it's possible!
My online language learning pages will guide you to resources that will help you learn to read, write, type, and even speak in your ancestors' native language.
Here again, learning a foreign language is critical. It will be much easier to keep track of information about your ancestors if you can write in their language. I think it's really neat to look at research others have done in their ancestors' languages and see the care they've taken to record names and places in their ancestors' native alphabet.
A little over a year ago, a member of my church congregation came to me asking for help recording some of her family history. She is an elderly lady--an immigrant from Russia. She struggles to communicate in English, and at the time I knew only how to say "hello", "goodbye", "yes", and "no" in Russian. I had been wanting to at least take a stab at learning Russian for some fifteen years, so it really bothered me that my procrastination had made it needlessly difficult to help her effectively. I determined then and there that I would never allow my lack of knowledge of a language I want to learn to keep me from doing genealogy ever again.
Not only am I into genealogy and family history, but I want to help others get into it as well. At the very least I want to be able to help others who've run into a problem. For me, there's no greater thrill than being in a position to help someone who is not able to get what the need because of a language barrier.
In my struggles to gain fluency in another language, I have found that the language barrier that once existed between me and others melts away. I find I am no longer kept from seeing tears of sorrow and of laughter, no longer kept from seeing a whole new group of fellow human beings who put their pants on one leg at a time, same as me.
For me, there's something about knowing at least a little bit of German that makes my family members' epic journey to America from places like Wurtzbach or Württemberg seem all the more real. Somehow, being able understand and do research in a foreign language just feels much more like I'm "getting my hands dirty" in the real and personal work of getting to know my ancestors.
I believe the day is coming when we will be able to meet our ancestors and visit with them. I look forward with joy to being able to hear them tell their stories. I can think of no greater way to honor them or show them respect than to at least try to exchange a few words with them in their native language.
The reason I now point you in the direction of learning a foreign language is that I hope to help you have this same experience.
If you're going to learn your ancestors' language, you'll need lots of motivation. People are generally intimidated by the prospect of learning a foreign language, and for good reason: it's a lot of work! But if you have a strong reason for wanting to learn and you make a point of enjoying the process, the work is only a temporary barrier to entry. Let learning be as much a journey as a destination, and knowledge of a foreign language becomes an eventuality.
Genealogy is my reason for learning a foreign language, and for me, it is as compelling a cause as I have ever known in my life.
I think to most people, learning a foreign language means committing to going to class. This can be expensive, and we genealogists are often busy enough with other things that we can't afford either time or money for that kind of undertaking.
Fortunately in our day and age, there are many ways we can learn a foreign language online at little or no cost. As I am able, I will build pages over the coming months to share with you the websites and videos I have found useful in my own foreign language studies.
Вы хотите выучить русский язык? (Do you want to learn Russian?) Check out these online videos and tutorials!
¿Qué tal aprender español? (What about learning Spanish?) Start here.
Möchten Sie Ihre deutschsprachigen Vorfahren kennenlernen? (Want to get to know your German-speaking ancestors?) Klicken Sie auf diesen Link.
Having studied foreign language both in the classroom and abroad, I can definitely attest that, if you really want to learn a foreign language to a point of usefulness, studying in-country is indispensable!
You can spend hours in the classroom or poring over books and videos you find on the internet, learning verbs and nouns and grammatical structures. But, while that get's you a long way, it may not get you to a point of feeling like you can really use the language effectively. Verbs and nouns and structures are one thing, but needing a word and not having it is powerful motivation to learn it and remember for next time! Besides, nothing helps you remember how to say "milk" in Russian like seeing a whole row of milk cartons at the grocery store with the word "Молоко" printed on the front in big, blue letters.
Being in a situation where you have to know and use a foreign language is stressful--even painful! But it's also an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime! That pain of not knowing has a way of making the effort to learn worthwhile. Being in-country, talking and working and learning with the locals gives you the exposure and experience that makes language learning really come into its own.
My studies in foreign language have turned out to be surprisingly useful for genealogical research. I've been able to use my German while doing research on my own ancestors, and I've been able to use Russian and Spanish in helping others with theirs.
I learned Spanish as an LDS missionary in Venezuela. I studied German both as a child and again while I was in college. I've also taken up learning Russian through online tutorials and videos as I get time. This last year, I traveled to Russia and then Germany to develop some better language skills to facilitate my work in genealogy.
Follow my trips to Russia and Germany right here!
I'm looking forward to working with RusGenProject.com, an organization based in New York USA, Ukraine, Russia and Poland that specializes in indexing genealogical records in Asia and Eastern Europe. They work in the English, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus, Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian languages. It looks like I'll be able to help build a database and upload their information into it. Neat stuff!