Issue 2 |

The joys and pains of learning a language

by on February 12, 2015

How does one start learning a language?

Like a game, you have to learn how to play it by first reading the rules, the instructions. You have to learn how to figure out what works, what doesn’t, where goes what, and what goes where. There are the rubrics to grapple with, the set text to read, those damned rules, those grammatical laws to follow and remember. One has to learn how to swallow those predictable predicates, subjective subjunctives, annoying adverbs, and virile verbs. In addition, there are endless courtrooms of permutations and exceptions, special cases which must be tried separately. There are groups, structures, forms, so many different laws that one has to recall, to remember.

But it was neither the rules that caught your eye nor the instructions that captured your imagination, was it? Who in childlike wonder stares at the manuals of a thousand games at the department store? You were not attracted by those that said to you, “Please read the following instructions before setup or use…” No. Rather, you were seduced by the simple sticker on the cover that said, “Play me!” and your hands instinctively reached out. So it is with the spell of language, those wordy incantations that demand to be interpreted. You had been placed under a simple spell—that inexplicable need to solve.

In the meantime, you struggle with learning the laws of the tongue. I have always thought of it like chewing on fish meat and choking on the fishbone. You could be tasting the richness of the language and all of sudden, something gets lodged in your throat. Suddenly, you choke on something structured, something hard. Something which has form chokes you, and constricts your throat.

What is the problem then with grammar? What is it about rules that make it so troublesome? Much of it is getting it into the right order. For example, you cannot say ‘I miss you’ in French; it just does not work that way. Instead, you must say ‘you me miss’. You seem to obey, according to some, that inverse law of nature in the jungle of the French language that condemns you to speak like Tarzan to Jane. (I hope that has changed your romantic view of French.) You have to get the arrangement right, you have to weave the words together in the right order; you must place orange tile beside orange tile, like the layering of a floor, the adjective juxtaposed against the noun beside the verb for one language, and another order for another language. There are other things we have to take note of, affixing the right gender (a political issue these days), using the right form, so on and so forth. However, nothing explains so greatly the problem with laws than the fear one feels of being caught transgressing. And there are law enforcers of course. One has to be so careful; there are pedantic grammarians all over the place. Just the other day I discovered my friend was secretly one, he was denouncing me oh-so-quietly for my grammatical errors under his breath. One fears grammar because one cannot obey it quickly and accurately enough. We hate it when someone points out to us our mistakes and leaves us feeling embarrassed.

Then there are the fabrics, the texture, the sound, to mean what you really want to mean with the proper expressions to match the words. The hardest of all these is trying to get the pronunciation right. Oh glorious pronunciation! I ruined my throat by mangling the r’s in French by incessant gurgling for a whole week, (that gurgle is my most triumphant achievement to date. Pyrrhic victories.) and wore my tongue out by repeatedly rolling over the “rrrrr” in Spanish. Practices just to get a proper pronunciation. Also, you have to know the depths of your false friends. You have to think sensibly—you have to be extremely sensitive to the word sensible [1], and when writing your pen hangs pensive for that millisecond in figuring out the word pénible [2]. You cannot succeed by using passer [3] to describe the passing of the test. So many false friends inhabit these worlds!

Then the day will come, much as you try to avoid it, where you have to open your mouth to speak. Language is a being with a voice that steals upon you. Without you knowing it, lo! Hidden by the cover of those magnificent droplets falling upon your head under the showerhead, alone in idle bath, your mouth doth move, it speaketh forth those foreign-sounding words. You hold conversations with yourself; you play two roles, speaking and answering thyself till the bathroom curtain falls and you undrape the temporary turban-towel from around your head. You become a secret madman, an addict. You repeat to yourself the words inside your head. You speak and translate the hallucinatory voices as a result of your language drug. Each word brings in its train a host of others; it overwhelms the channel, like the boarding of a crowded bus. English jostles and argues with others to get to the front. Your mind goes into overdrive, you start thinking in linguistic doublethink—you contradict yourself in the maelstrom of languages that turn within the broth of your brain as you speak and listen. Is it chevaux or cheveux, horse or hair? You become philosophical. That by which we call words by any other metaphor would smell of obfuscation and a disordered reality—perhaps a horse is just as good as a piece of hair. You really have become mad. But riotous minds operate within the chaos of the square, like those revolutions that surround the public spaces. Within the confined square of your head, your private cell, you turn the words and scrabble the tiles, like shifting of many gears over and over again, trying to use different ways to express the same sentiment, all for the lofty goal of expressing yourself properly in a foreign language.

You become a master of circumstance, you create questions to fit your vocabulary, you create settings where introduction is indispensable, and where asking personal questions becomes the norm. But you really are just making conversation for conversation’s sake—you do not really want their number, you do not really want to know where they live (or do you?). You just want to practice, you just want to speak the language despite your limited words, your impoverished vocabulary, your inadequate and at times, inane repetitive questions.

However, most frustrating of all, you forget. Whatever inner joy and delight you had at mastering them is sometimes quickly undone by those truant words. Your encephalon struggles to give them detention in your cranium confines. You have to learn again and again, a veritable Sisyphean task.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom, learning a language is not without its permanent joys. To be privy to its rites, to partake of its rituals is to enter into another realm. It is not out of this world however, this other realm is found in all the places of the world. The secrets of culture are slowly revealed. The world opens up to you; it speaks through the medium of language.

Finally then, one day, you can say unabashed, “I understand!” And what joy recognition will bring! The crackling noises of foreign radio over the waves will no longer be intelligible, their Morse-like sounds will no longer bring you remorse. Now, you will be able to pick out sounds, words, like candies in the field—that means “hello” and that was “see you again”—you will say with glee. And though everything in between had passed you by, you will be filled with an untranslatable joy. At last something speaks, something human resonates with your soul. You have tasted a drop of the ocean in the desert of your exile and isolation. The linguistic mystery is finally unravelled.

But it is not enough. Like listening to a cicada at midday, you become restless until you have unlocked the meanings to these sounds, those foreign-sounding cries. It was like that for me. I wanted to know, I wanted to understand, and I wanted to make sense. I wanted to transcend the limits of my world, I wanted to be unintelligible to my fellow men and intelligible to foreign others.

Language learner, (mon semblable, mon frère!) it does not matter how many you have mastered, how many you words you can speak, because here in the suburb of the universe, you have taken a noble step! You have crossed the Rubicon, and perhaps even greater. A lone invader besieging the empire of words, you have taken on the superhuman endeavour of undoing babel, the journey of reversing irreversible divine judgment. In it, held out to you, is the promise of language—the celebration of humanity. Through your words, you will try to unite all the humanities of this wide, divided world. Learning, you will understand and be understood.

Such are the joys, such are the pains, those that I had found it in my own little ways. How brilliant then it will be for you yourself, on your own journey in language learning!

[1] Sensible (French) – sensitive

[2] Pénible (French) – painful, hard, displeasing

[3] Passer (French) – (inf.) to pass. The French use réussir (to succeed) when they describe one passing a test.

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