It’s no secret that I love words. I enjoy the elasticity of language more than the rules and appreciate that slang is always in flux; we’re continually creating new idioms to express the ways we see ourselves and the world. We can play with words by juggling their meanings and smash them together to create new ones; we can invent new adjectives by adding “y” onto the ends of words or squeeze a whole sentence into a word using hyphens to make long it-may-give-you-a-headache-or-a-good-laugh jargon-y lingo that outsiders scratch their heads at. The dictionary is always expanding, and I adore all the 171,476 words that currently exist.
But once I try to look beyond those words, I’m lost. Much like I’m aware of abstract concepts such as dark matter and imaginary numbers, I know there are other words out there, yet whenever I try to learn them, they slip through the fingers of my mind like neutrinos escaping the sun.
Sure, I took a foreign language in high school, but I remember as much about my Spanish classes as my science ones, and I’ll come clean right now and admit to Googling neutrinos. I just didn’t take it seriously; after all, when would I have to speak Spanish in my everyday life? So instead of studying diligently, my friends and I wasted hours competing to come up with the silliest Spanish phrases possible. My favorite was trabajaba un sacapuntas (do yourself a favor and say it out loud), and I’ll admit it’s sad that one of the only sentences I can still remember is “I used to work a pencil sharpener.” Very helpful in case I ever find myself applying for a job at a school supply warehouse in Madrid.
I’m not alone, of course. How many Americans are fluent in a second language? No, let me lower the bar a bit: how many Americans could order a meal in a language other than English? We yell at immigrants to speak American once they’re in America, but we think nothing of traveling to another country and expect everyone to understand our language. (While it’s true that the US doesn’t have an official language, we’re very well-versed in ignorance.)
As an American, I obviously can’t leave myself out of this equation. When I was twenty, my friend and I spent a week in France armed with exactly five French phrases. Yes, that’s seven days in a place where our communication was limited to roughly ten words, but we assumed that would be a minor problem. “Bonjour,” I would say with a dazzling smile whenever I needed something. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I didn’t realize how often I expected the other person to answer “Yes,” until on our third day, someone finally answered, “Non.”
No? No?? What was this person even DOING in Paris if she couldn’t speak English? Although most people wouldn’t expect employees of the New York or DC subway system to speak another language, somehow my friend and I could not understand why this Metro worker had to be so frustratingly unilingual. I presumed she would at least know her own landmarks, so I said slowly and carefully as though long pauses between words could magically turn someone polyglot, “We need to get to the Louvre,” and then added S’il vous plaît,” for good measure. I had just blown through three of my five phrases and was beginning to panic.
She looked blankly at me, so my friend stepped up. “Louvre!” she said loudly. “LOUVRE!”
It has, of course, occurred to me that Madame Only-Speaks-French might have been pretending not to understand just to put two idiot Americans in their place, but I can’t be sure because I know I would have personally lost patience around the point where my friend took out a pen and we started drawing pyramids on the Metro map. We thought that maybe pictures (if that’s what we want to call my shitty triangles; I draw a pretty mean stick figure Mona Lisa as well) might be worth at least a few words, if not a thousand, but she apparently didn’t speak hieroglyphics any more than she spoke English.
We eventually made it to the Louvre the way we made it everywhere else that week: ten words and then a series of desperate gestures (the can-can can, in fact, get you directions to the Moulin Rouge). And when we finally arrived in London at the end of the week, collapsing like dying people who have just dragged themselves across the desert and spied an oasis, croaking out, “English!” and “Freedom!” as we crossed the border, we still blamed the French for not being more hospitable. Non, Merci, Metro lady. Because nothing says rude like not knowing every other language in the world to satisfy tourists. If Americans wonder why other countries see us as self-absorbed and clueless, please use this story as Exhibit F for fail.
Thankfully, I’m a lot older and a little wiser now, and I’ve realized that learning another language doesn’t just expand our brains, it can also open us up to the rest of the world. Yes, Americans can keep expecting everyone else to learn English, but just like every relationship, it should be a two-way street. Can we ever really understand a different country or another person if we don’t speak their language?
With that view in mind, a few months ago I decided to learn French. I mean really learn it, not like I learned Spanish in high school by coaxing exchange students into teaching us the dirty words (I guess I remember a few more Spanish words than I thought). My goal was/is to be able to write and speak it fluently. I play with words, and I work with them too, so I figured it would be easy. You follow the computer program, memorize the words, and voilà, you become bilingual.
I’m sure it will surprise none of you to find out that there’s a bit more to it. Learning a language is not an exact science, and as someone who teaches writing, I knew this theoretically. The program claims that I’m 43% fluent in French, but that seems very optimistic because even though I know a fair amount of vocabulary, I still lack the glue to stick a sentence together.
The good thing about learning to how to write French is that you can take twenty minutes to form a sentence and nobody will know how long you sweated over it. Unfortunately, though, that’s only half the battle: you still need to learn how to speak it because not everyone you know lives in your computer, right? Speaking should be easier; after all, babies learn how to speak before they write. And sure, finding the words isn’t easier or harder than in writing, but pronunciation is a nightmare all its own. Thankfully, that same computer program has been helping me work through these different levels of hell:
“Fruit,” an electronic French voice says encouragingly.
“Fwee,” I repeat obediently.
“Oops, that’s not quite right. Fruit.”
“I’m sorry, please try again. Fruit.”
“Fwee!” I shout at the screen. “Dammit, FWEEEEEE!”
My three-year-old happens to wander by (after I finish cussing at the computer, thank goodness). “Fruit,” he says without even trying, and I’m pretty sure the program sighs in relief.
“Beginner’s luck,” I say grudgingly to Jacques Miles as he stands there smugly, wearing a beret and munching on a baguette.
It probably was just beginner’s luck because he still can’t pronounce most English words correctly on a regular basis. Yet, in general, it’s proven that children are better at learning languages; they have an ability to detect nuances in accents that they lose in adulthood, which is why it’s important to encourage young kids to learn other languages as early as possible. It’s also why no matter how much I try to sound like the chef in The Little Mermaid, I somehow come off sounding like Sebastian instead. But if it’s too hard to master an accent, then adults are off the hook, right? Not exactly. Correct pronunciation just takes us a little more time to learn, and it is important if your endgame is to converse with actual humans instead of just pre-programmed French robots.
On that same trip to France, I met someone my age who had lived in Paris her whole life and was eager to practice English with me. We struck up a conversation, and at one point she asked, “Do you like Madonna?”
“Sure, Madonna’s great,” I answered.
“There are so many things I like from Madonna,” she continued.
“Yes, her songs? I like them too.”
“I love Madonna so much, I like to eat it all the time.”
At this point, things were becoming…uncomfortable, although I figured maybe she got the idiom wrong and was just trying to say she liked Madonna so much she could eat her up. Still a bit weird but acceptable. This continued for a while longer, each of us becoming more confused by the moment but too polite to say so. I began to wonder where she’d learned English, and she was most likely wondering the same about me. And for anyone who assumed the Metro worker was either exceptionally stupid or exceptionally good at playing stupid (because why wouldn’t she at least recognize “Louvre”?) consider that I had a five-minute conversation about Madonna while my new acquaintance was having one about McDonald’s.
This was someone who’d been learning English for ten years, so I probably should cut myself a bit of slack. I’ve come to understand that I’m not going to get this on the first try, the second try, or even the thirty-fifth. I may be comfortable with my language, but it’s like breathing the air on Mars versus Earth when I try to sound remotely like myself in a different one.
When we learned that my high school Spanish teacher grew up in France and moved to the US when she was sixteen without knowing much more than five English phrases herself, my classmates and I were amazed that she eventually became trilingual. We wanted to know, now that she’d lived here for over twenty years, if she was able to think in English because we considered that the gold standard of fluency. She said that while she thought in English, she still dreamed in French. And that seems like a pretty good goal: to grab at the new, quicksilver words that flash before your eyes but keep dreaming up ways to work and play with the old ones.
And so, no matter how much of a natural you think you are at something, even though Americans may think learning English should be no big deal, trying to learn another language can provide a much-needed reality check. As a bonus, make sure to learn it with your kids, too; it’ll deflate your ego in no time.