Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What if I don't speak the language? A common genealogical complaint

Eventually, everyone who becomes involved in genealogical research reaches the point where their ancestors spoke a different language than the native language of the researcher. This happens even if the ancestors in question all lived in the same country as the researcher because languages change over time. See Wikipedia: Language change. Over the years, some genealogists have "specialized" in a certain region or country. Those genealogists who do not specialize in a certain region or country often defer doing research because of their lack of specialization. Lack of familiarity with a specific language no longer needs to be an absolute obstacle to doing research in that language because of the technological developments that are now available.

Specialization in a particular region or country or even a specific topic involves certain identifiable components. These include the following:
  • Knowledge of the existence of and availability of records
  • The ability to access those same records
  • The ability to read both the language of the records and the handwriting involved
  • An in-depth knowledge of the culture, religion, history and context in which the records were created
  • The knowledge of basic research principles and the ability to apply those principles
If you think about these requirements, you may realize that much of what you learn through doing genealogical research has broad application in any area of the world and in any language. During my lifetime I have studied many languages. The degree of perceived difficulty in learning a target language depends on the language of the learner. For example, most English speakers consider Spanish to be an "easy" language to acquire. However, very few English speakers acquire a native proficiency in Spanish. In fact, all human languages have the same degree of complexity. Fortunately, genealogists do not have to become proficient in either speaking or reading any particular language in order to do genealogical research in that language. The set of terms and phrases needed for genealogical research is very limited compared to the complexity of learning the entire language.

Not every researcher is going to achieve proficiency or become an expert in a particular country's records, however, many researchers can acquire the level of proficiency needed to do their own individual research. There are many online helps for acquiring information about the components listed above. Where most researchers fail is in addressing all of the aspects of doing research by focusing on the details of translating a few records rather than becoming acquainted with the culture, religion, history and context in which the records were created. It is true, that by using Google Translate, many records can be deciphered. But rote translation of the records often fails to convey their full meaning. However, the ability conferred by Google Translate provides an entry into research in any particular language not previously available.

Genealogists who were previously reticent to attempt the task of doing research in a language other than their own should now be encouraged to use Google Translate to begin the process of acculturalization necessary to do research in any target language.

How do I start to learn to do research and a new language, culture, religion, or time period?

For example, when I began doing research in Denmark before computer programs were available, I had to find a Danish word list to help me with the translation. Today, that word list is readily available on Google Translate. Of course, having ready translations of key terms usually raises considerably more complex issues. But by diligently working my way through the various Danish records I was able to achieve a level of proficiency sufficient to do adequate research. By the way, I am still learning more about Scandinavian research. My language background is very helpful. However, my wife who has no particular linguistic background has learned to do Swedish research at a very high level of proficiency even though she has to ask for help occasionally.

In addition to Google Translate, there is also an abundance of online specific country resources such as the FamilySearch Research Wiki. By using these online resources anyone with experience in doing genealogical research in their native language as an entry into doing research in another language. By the way, this entry is merely an entry you still have to do all the work necessary.

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