There was a time in my life when I wanted to learn every major language. In 8th grade, I
started to learn Spanish which seemed easy enough. Five years of Spanish classes. I earned
excellent grades. The irony? I cannot actually communicate with a native Spanish-speaker. To be
fair, I do sometimes understand what people are saying in Spanish, if they don't speak too
quickly and take care to use the vocabulary of an 8-year old child. In truth, I used to be able to read and write fairly well. But it's been several years since that time and my level of Spanish
fluency has been reduced to murmuring enigmatic mundane statements across the table to my sister
during those rare times when we are actually together. (Que quieres hacer mañana?)
During my senior year of high school, I decided to take a semester of French because I could
and it seemed like a good idea at the time. All I remember from that class is one extremely
useful phrase (les petits pois = baby peas) and feeling dejected because the
pronounciation of French sounds was so completely alien to my tongue that I might as well have
been speaking Swahili. Oh, and because I was in a beginner's class with maturity-challenged
freshman, I recall sharing long, sympathetic gazes with the young teacher as she tried to deal
with a gaggle of students who could not contain themselves when it came to words like
section, (which, pronounced in the French manner, can vaguely be considered to nearly
almost sound as if it includes the word "sex"). For shame.
So enough with the romance languages. When I started college, I decided to undertake the
random challenge of learning Japanese! I took four years of intensive Japanese studies, five
months of which were accomplished while studying abroad in Japan. I'm fluent in Japanese, yes?
No. I'm far better at communicating in Japanese than Spanish, but if you put me in front of a
Japanese person and insist we carry on an abstract conversation...the results would be very sad
indeed. Actually, the worst part is that, after all that studying, I can neither read nor write.
At all. (Unless I use the highly elementary hiragana phonetic alphabet, or katakana which is
the phonetic alphabet for onomatopoeia
and foreign words. Most prolific Japanese adults use heavy doses of kanji which is a pictoral
system with over 50,000 symbols and combinations of symbols of harrowing complexity. Japanese is
quite the language.) At least, I find the sounds easy enough to pronounce.
So, I graduate from college and eventually settle down for a bit in a semi-rural area of
Pennsylvania where the English language alone is sufficient to achieve general communication. And then I go and fall
in love with a Portuguese man who lives in the French/Dutch-speaking country of Belgium. Mon
So here I am, armed with my dictionary and a shield of determination, striding forth bravely
into an undiscovered country of ]linguistic obstacles and social complications. (One of the many
repercussions of choosing love.) It is beyond humbling to shift from speaking like a fairly
eloquent individual (in English) to one who must be content to offer sagely observations such as
"It's raining!" and "I like cats." Inside, my mind is rolling with interesting anecdotes about
running barefoot through puddles and cuddling with my 18-year old Burmese cat who incessantly
yells as if he's being stretched on a rack.
People tell me to be patient. They ensure me that I will be speaking fluently in a few
But what about the things I have to say now? What about all the people whom I haven't
properly thanked? What about the cooking I haven't sufficiently complimented? What about the friends I
cannot make? The questions I can neither ask nor answer? The people I unknowingly offend? What
about the thousand and one things simple we say and hear every day that help us to interact
appropriately with the world around us?
How does one deal with the strangeness of such drastic incomprehension?
I try to look content, that I might not make others feel awkard at my sorrow. I try to make
an effort to say what I can say when it seems like a vaguely decent time to say it. I try to
find other ways to communicate..a smile, a gesture, a mime.
Is this the same process we experience as a child? Smiling to make other people smile.
Mimicking the sounds we hear. Pointing and grunting when nothing else seems to be effective.
Crying when the frustration becomes overwhelming. Finding comfort in each warm embrace, each
While there is a certain wonder to being a child again, I am not a child. I have to find work
so I can pay my bills. I have to buy groceries. I'd like to study aikido, learn to cook, and see
more of the world. I want to make friends and build a family. I want to ask questions, find
answers and dig myself a suitable niche in this world preferably before I grow old and die.
I guess learning a language the hard way, by diving head first into a sea of change, is
not supposed to be easy. Writing this essay has helped me to see how much there is to gain from
the experience despite all the tears and awkward moments. I know I will learn infinitely more
than I ever did by sitting in a classroom and reading textbooks. One day I may even be able to
speak French. And someday, if I'm really fortunate, I will be fluent in the language of being