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 pronunciation 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 pictorial 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 dieu!
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 months' time.
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 awkward 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 tender gesture.
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 human.