Saturday, September 12, 2020

Learning Another Language: The Thrill of Gathering Words...


For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of a lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won't drown. The other language is always there to support you. to save you. But you can't float without the possibility of drowning or sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.      --Jhumpa Lahiri from her book In Other Words (a wonderful book about learning how to learn a language that you love).


This is an older woman from Yunan, China, near Tibet, who was willing to talk to me--another older woman. 😀   She told me she had never been able to go to school, but she knew how to farm. Her favorite thing to do now was to let everyone else work since she was old. Her favorite thing to do now is to watch her grandkids while everyone else works in the fields.

Since I live in China (for the second time), I have accepted a fact: I must surrender myself to not being as eloquent as I want to be when I speak Chinese. However, sometimes I surprise myself, and a Chinese person will generously compliment me. There is a temporary boost of confidence (The moments are lasting longer now), but I inevitably know I will soon be humbled again. It is a daily rhythm. I guess I thrive on the tension of living in elation and struggle--or between the two.

I thrill in finding the right phrase, the best word, and being understood in another language than my own. My scribbled collection of words in various notebooks of Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, French, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, Tagalog, Hmong, Italian, German, Swedish, Hebrew, Swahili, Hindi, and Icelandic have given me layers of great joy. Each language represents a chapter in my life, a place where I have lived or have a tie to. I am no means fluent in most of them. They are all on various levels. Chinese is currently the one I am most proficient in, but I am not afraid to pull up my old notebooks and experiment with the old cherished words from my language basket. 

Sometimes my memory evades me of a chosen word. The moment will lapse, but I determine to grab it up next time--for another befitting occasion. Words have given me power to get out of scrapes (like how to deal with some new rules at the gym or a misunderstanding at a traffic light), make new friends, explain the swirling emotions of life, and buy basil and cumin at the Chinese market. Words soften hearts and can turn fear and skepticism into understanding--even laughter.  Every day I try to work at it.

Once and a while there is the trepidation of crashing on this language journey (and I have many times). For about a week I was interchanging transportation and communication with each other, smugly thinking I had grabbed the right word. I had a few confused looks, and finally, someone corrected me. Just this week I was trying to say 'complain', and I was using the word 'persecute'--way too strong. Luckily, I was corrected by a kind Chinese man. Learning a language means you have to be willing to take the corrections and submit to being a child again.

Sometimes the whole language process just makes me want to be silent, and not give away any more words for a while. Yet, often, very often, I have the joy of seeing the most beautiful views--jabbering for hours and connecting soul-to-soul--all while speaking this language that has intrigued me since I was in college. I marvel that the other person is interested in the words I give away to them. They nod in agreement or even laugh. There is a surge of aliveness that lights up my brain and soul. I walk away, resolute to taste the same euphoria again the next time.

Charlemagne said, "You get a second soul when you learn a second language." A Czech saying boasts that for every language you learn, you have lived another life. Duolingo, the famous app to learn languages, states that just one person who begins to speak another language is like a small candle--a spark that is ignited somewhere in the world. With that one lone person, conversations can transform and explore new shores--even breaking down entrenched walls. People soften when they see another person vulnerable enough to try and utter and sputter their language. There is a connection that just does not happen with Google Translate or a translator. But it takes patience on both parties; both have to be willing to watch the flower bloom.

Sometimes even if we just learn a handful of words in another language, windows open that otherwise would remain latched shut. I have been surprised with just a little effort to learn a few words and phrases--that it can mean so much to people. Friendships and connections expand; relationships are enriched. Truly, the world is a better world when we try to twist our tongue in another direction--to grasp the unfamiliar and unknown. Besides, it shows we care enough to learn someone else's world. We become a new person because we talk to people we would never have ventured to cross the aisle to speak to. 

If I think about the person who triggered my love for language, it would be my father. He was not a recluse scholar of linguistics. Yet, his love of people, geography, maps, history, and languages merged together. People from other cultures intrigued him. He longed to understand their beliefs, hobbies, family history, what neighborhood they grew up in. Dad could speak some Icelandic, and understand more--after growing up listening to his parents. Since he grew up in San Diego, he studied Spanish, and at intermittent times for the rest of his life. He resolutely, with no self-consciousness joked and spoke to his Hispanic friends--and any others who cared to converse with him. Was he fluent? No. But he occasionally gave talks to large audiences in Spanish and hired employees who he practiced his intermediate Spanish on. Making a mistake was not important to him. His aim was only to communicate the best he could--to share stories.  

When I was learning Spanish in middle and high school, he would practice my r's with me and then exclaim, "Isn't that fun? I like how that word just rolls off my tongue." I would think to myself, "Yeah, that was fun."And it made me want to go and see if I could speak more with someone who really spoke Spanish. Whether he knew it or not, my father was giving me not only permission, but encouragement to get outside of not only my own language boundaries, but cultural and geographical as well. He made it seem fun to learn a language. From him, I learned that even if I stumble and make some blunders, it is ok. I am grateful that my dad taught me how to be curious about language, but also to try and connect language with people. 

Find a teacher, mentor, or tutor who you are not afraid to see you struggle or even fail. The best teachers (and friends) know how how to encourage and put you back on the ladder again if you fall off (and we all undoubtedly will). Indeed, making mistakes is part of the journey when we try new things--a new sport, musical instrument, or anything else. To feel comfortable around that teacher or friend when we struggle is critical as we gather our words.  

Contrary to what some people may think, learning another language does not have to be the luggage you pack and carry around from childhood. Some of my great heroes are some American friends who started learning Spanish in their early 60's, and now approaching their 80's, just spent a year doing service in Columbia. It is powerful and compelling to find passions much later in your life--to connect with people and communities you would never have known. There is always the humble possibility of sounding like a child, but also an undeniable exhilaration that you are on an incredible journey--a trip you would not have wanted to miss. And sometimes the travel won't even require a suitcase. It is just pulling out a new word from your word basket...

   Some stories on why I keep on collecting words...

I love this picture of my dad because it totally captures his personality, and how he could get to know someone--even if he did not speak their language. I think I taught him a few Arabic words, and I know these men do not know much English. But it never mattered to him. When Dad came to visit us in Doha, he was always "talking" to someone--a fisherman, guard, cashier, my neighbors. One day we wondered where he was and he had just gone to the mosque next to our compound with a new friend. His secret? He was endlessly fascinated with people. 

When we were in Stockholm, my cousin taught my son with autism some Swedish. He loves nothing better than to converse with others with their language. I have learned not to doubt his efforts, memory, and even proficiency. With a few words in his own basket, he climbed on the train in Stockholm and proceeded to converse with the 83-year-old woman across from him. She cheerfully replied to his comments and then realized that his ability had abruptly stopped. I remember her smiling, and then beginning a most fascinating conversation, in English, about being a child in WW2 in Sweden. Twenty minutes later, none of us wanted to get off the train because we wanted to hear more of her stories. Without my son and his willingness to try with his small little basket of Swedish words, we would have missed out on a most memorable moment.

 One of my fondest recent memories of a language immersion experience; For two days, Vicki and I scootered around Yangshou, Chou--laughing and talking while we saw the beautiful rice fields and mountains near Guilin. These were hours I was glad I could speak and laugh in Mandarin with a most delightful person, who then graciously invited us to her home. She is married to the fourth son and lives on a street where they all live their families next door to each other. I was grateful she gave me a glimpse into their village life. But the best part was our conversations winding around the rice fields on the scooter. She has a terrific sense of humor, and mostly we just laughed.

 My mom just attracts children so this is her with some of my Arabic language experts who would teach (and sometimes laugh 😀) at my rudimentary Arabic. I never became conversant, but I could say some things when I needed to--especially to our art students who my son and I taught. 

                                               Some of my favorite tutors in Doha--my neighbors. 

    A funny moment in Lijang, China, in Yunan province, where all the ladies in the market wanted to sell me some carrots. I knew I could not bring them all home so I picked the one that looked the oldest and brought her carrots.


These two lovely ladies are mother and daughter, the mum being the mayor of LeTronquay, France in Normandy. It is the village that my father-in-law helped to liberate in WW2 after he landed on D-Day. Her daughter then came to stay with us twice in Doha. Because of some friends in France, I swim around the "language lake" in French. Some day I need to take off the life vest. 

 This is a Cambodian family I met when I worked in refugee camps in Thailand. I later reunited with them in the United States. They are one of the reasons I decided to learn some Cambodian. I can't remember much because I have not speak it for a long time, but I still remember the thrill and joy when I saw the Cambodian refugees see that I was trying to speak with them. 

Meet Meek Chi, a Cambodian refugee who walked through the minefields from Cambodia to Thailand. In this picture, she is 82, and I was 22. We were dear friends, and how she could make everyone laugh, I don't know--especially in a refugee camp. But she did. I have never seen a more dedicated, diligent student. She was always on the front row with sometimes about 800 people, looking up to learn like I was a famous professor. We taught the refugees at this time in large airy sheds. Meek Chi was usually one of the first to arrive to show me her numbers and words that she was learning to write for the first time in her life. Because of her, I tried to learn some Cambodian. I wanted to penetrate her world, to understand the funny sounds that came from her toothless grin. Later, I taught in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where she also came. Since we worked in the refugee camp, she sometimes would knock on my door to proudly show me her "schoolwork." I tried to find her in Brooklyn when I moved to New York City a few years later, but I never did. Someday I hope to meet her again where we can laugh and talk together again. 


I met Ashok in Doha who I called my Indian son. He invited us to his sister's wedding. Because of him, I learned a little Hindi and went to India.


This is Sam who was our sailing teacher from Cardiff, England when we lived in Doha, Qatar. In our lapses of time when the Qatar wind refused to blow and the sun just wanted to shine as we tried to sail, he would entertain us with British and American euphemisms. We would roll with laughter at the differences, and then he would mimic the different accents of England. He told me one day he was not good at school and the teachers did not understand dyslexia. Yet, he could keep us all chuckling for hours about the differences in how we speak English across the pond


Meet Paulo from Florance, Italy. A few years ago we were in Florence for a few days. He was our taxi driver the first night we were there. I don't speak Italian, but with my old Spanish, we were able to understand one another. It was a mishmash conversation of Italian, Spanish, and English. I will never forget our laughs and stories. In a most surprising way, the third night he took us home again. We could not believe the coincidence that we would flag him down again--with all the taxis in Florence. Words allowed us to have laughter and friendship. Italy was even better because we met Paulo. 


So back to the quote by Jhumpa Lahiri about the lake at the beginning--where we sometimes only want to swim around with our life vest on. Some people, like me, want to have many baskets of words with lots of languages. Others just choose one. But sooner or later, it is good to leave the shore of familiarity and certainty. Here in China, I am having a fun time in the middle of the lake--trying not to put on the life vest on too much. 

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