Watching My Language

I’m a bit of an addict in what I’ll admit is sometimes an obnoxious arena. With foreign languages, you can’t help but feel guilty for diving into full-bore as your buddy next to you gets anxious and frustrated.

My personal process with the privilege and power of language learning is in flux. The veritable sea of opportunities I’m currently living in demands intentionality – how and why am I plotting the course I’m on? My new escapades in Thai are crude – blind casts with a fishing rod that might have no line on the reel. They echo my fumbled deliveries of Julieta Venegas songs as a voice-cracking preteen. I get to be a beginner again.

I first muddled in languages in kindergarten, at an Italian school in my North Seattle neighborhood – “cinquegranelli” – “five little grains.” I say muddling because to suggest anything more deliberate would be a little too generous to my capacities as a five-year-old. Puberty must have wiped the Italian from my brain. Today I only remember being little, dancing in a sequined get-up and shiny vest on stage at Seattle Center for Festa Italiana.

Through the rest of grade school, however, I rubbed up against Spanish enough times that some of it adhered to my brain. My first memories in this regard are of my fluent father’s shouts of “Andale!” and “Vamanos!” I guess I was a little slow as a kid.

My interest was utilitarian – “That guy over there is different, and to know anything about his life, I need to be able to talk to him.” This probably first occurred to me at our local Ballard Tex-Mex dive, Michoacán. Chimichangas (think deep-fried quesadillas) are pretty representative of my diet as a kid when left to my own devices.

Spanish was inspiring, and later Arabic too. My father persisted and geeked out along with me; I ground in enough Spanish to land on my feet in Buenos Aires for a term during college. Fewer chimichangas, more empanadas, asado grill-outs and resigned abandonment of vegetarianism.

In Argentina, many amazing chances to learn from and with social movement organizations flipped my understanding of why I’d learned Spanish. To term proficiency in a language as “speaking” that language is, by one understanding, to focus on the visitor. For native English speakers making a choice to live abroad, this description emphasizes “our” impositions; it emphasizes getting our ideas across to the other. Agency for the visitor, passivity for the host.

Far more important than speaking my own ideas in the language of the country I’m visiting is learning to listen. This sounds like preachy, false humility, as it should. It’s nothing if not practiced. I hope that being mindful of this language-learning frame can redress my daily intrusions and trespasses – the violences I carry with my privilege. Audre Lorde wrote that we make hopes into language, then ideas, then tangible action. I hope to learn a Thai community’s ideas of wanting, needing and helping.

I also don’t believe we can escape the physiology of crossing cultures and languages. How do our brains best learn new sounds? How do we rebuild the ability to acquire language, when we lost our best chance at it when we were 18 months old? Making language learning “not about you” is also crucial from a neuro-psychological perspective. Immersion with a language instructor is more effective than online courses and programs because of what that instructor gives – the focus on what matters for communicating ideas within their culture. The vital signs of healthy communication in the U.S. don’t convert directly to Thailand.

I’ll be responsible for making my listening more than a performance. Another lofty credo to anchor my foothold in blind idealism – setting an intention for this twenty-seven-month leg of the journey.

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  1. Love this. It’s true even of our native languages.

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