On Language and Languages
I am of the minority in the country in which I reside. That country is the USA, and the reason I am a minority (one of them, anyway) is that I speak more than one language. I speak Polish, German, (crappy) Spanish, and (worse) French. (The parentheticals in the previous sentence are in no way meant to communicate my feelings about the latter two languages, only the condition of my speaking ability.)
It’s been a long-running goal of mine to speak multiple languages fluently. Languages have always fascinated me. I’ve made up a few. (Or a couple, more accurately.) I’ve always loved the idea of the Otherness that makes up foreign speech, and better yet when I get a glimpse into that Otherness and understand it. As I grew older, I started learning Spanish. At first it was all verb conjugations and noun genders and monotonous memorization — until Mrs. Slater got pregnant and was replaced by a teacher whose name I’m ashamed to have forgotten. The first day this new teacher walked into the room, she started babbling in Spanish. She refused to speak English to us. Everyone panicked, but she had the right of it.
Everyone is capable of learning a language. We all do it once; we can all do it again. She had the theory that the best way to learn a language is to hear it in context, to observe and make connections between speech and environment. This is what babies do. Once kids learn their basic vocabularies, they move onto more abstract conceptual language and more advanced forms of communication, but it’s no good to be able to conjugate the subjunctive tense of a random -ar verb if it has no context. Grammar without conversation is like the squiggling lines of a highway system without benefit of map. It’s meaningless without context.
All this has come up in my mind because I’ve again decided to dust off my Gaelic books. Learning Gaelic has been a goal of mine for a very long time. Part of it is the sheer beauty of the language. Another part is the connection it holds for me to my ancestors. Due to many ethnocidal policies enacted in Scotland over the course of the past three or four hundred years (and some before), Gaelic speakers now reside almost exclusively in the Islands and Northwest Highlands of Scotland. Gaelic is a rich, living language that formed the center of a community-oriented culture for over a thousand years. So many stories and legends have been lost, stories that were never committed to parchment and only existed in an oral tradition that was strangled over the course of a couple centuries. So I want to learn it. I want my children to know it. I feel like a child clapping my hands as Peter Pan abjures the crowd to show Tinker Bell that people still believe in fairies. If I clap loud enough and long enough, maybe others will clap with me. Maybe we can bring Gaelic back from the flickering fringe at the edge of Scotland that many say derisively is only the death-rattle of a language past saving. Welsh and Irish are making a comeback. Even Cornish is making a comeback. I want to do my part to save the language of my people.
So here I am, staring at a small pile of books with daunting amounts of vowels and elusive consonants that hover at the back of the throat and sometimes fade out of existence entirely depending on what the overwhelming vowels have to say about it. A few years ago, I picked them up and gave it a shot, but without audio help and the nearest native speaker being some 5,000 miles away, I floundered for a bit before conceding that I wasn’t up to the task.
Around that same time, I started picking apart another language. I didn’t have the same emotional ties to Polish as I do to Gaelic, but I did have some. I met friends because of the intriguing sound of Polish. Those friends spent a good deal of time trying to learn my language, so I figured the least I could do was try to learn theirs. I set about teaching myself Polish.
I learned Polish in the space of about two years. I didn’t know at the time what a feat that was. When I moved to Poland to study abroad, I tested into one of the highest levels of Polish classes (C1, for all you Europeans who might care). I was dismally behind on my conversational fluidity, but my grammar was excellent and my pronunciation was so good that I always got incredulous looks from people when I told them I had zero Polish background. And so I got dunked into the deep end of the language pool. For the first few months, I was over my head. I studied relentlessly to improve my vocabulary. To be conversational in English, one needs to know about 2,000 words. Many resources say that only 1,000 are really necessary, but for the sake of argument, I’ll call it 2,000. In Polish, it’s necessary to know over 7,000 in order to be conversational. I got greedy. I collected words like gold coins. I became a linguistic Scrooge. I breathed noun declensions. I prattled Polish to anyone who would listen. When servers at restaurants would figure out I was foreign and switch to English, I would speak Polish at them until they got the point that I didn’t want English.
And it worked. Even now, four years after leaving my beloved Krakow, I am still pretty fluent. Because of my experience with Polish, I am utterly grateful that that was the language I chose to immerse myself in. Why?
Polish is an intensely complicated language. Beyond the mountain of vocabulary necessary for speaking, it is home to three genders of nouns which all decline through a very Latin (think actual Latin, not Romance Languages) system of cases. Verbs change for gender. Nouns change not only for gender and case, but for status as animate, inanimate, or virile. Sentence structure is fluid and poetic. Adjectives decline with their nouns. It is due to the hard-earned familiarity with these aspects of language that I picked up German in about four months, and it is due to all of that knowledge that I have again decided to pick up and dust off my Gaelic books again.
No longer do my eyes glaze over when the word “genitive” appears in a sentence. I don’t stare helplessly, wondering what on earth a slender consonant is or what the hell it means to be a leniting vowel. Nasalized vowels and palatized consonants are no longer daunting. Through the precision of Polish pronunciation, I have a higher awareness of what is going on in my mouth when I talk: where my tongue sits with certain consonants and how changing it can affect sound; the difference between words spoken far forward in the mouth as opposed to back in the throat. I have a deep respect for English-learners; our grammar system is capricious and labyrinthine, our spelling an exercise in torture. I bow to languages where phonics is not actually the joke it is in English, where clusters of letters like -ough will make the same sound wherever they’re used rather than performing acrobatics like bough, through, thorough, rough. Where rules are rules. To quote a favorite comedian:
“Brian, what’s the i before e rule?”
“…i before e….always.”
“No, Brian. I before e except after c, or when sounding like a as in neighbor and weigh, and on weekends, and holidays, and all throughout May, and you’ll ALWAYS BE WRONG, NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY!”
To sum up, languages are interesting. (Hahaha!) In case you are wondering which ones I care to learn to fluency (or maintain), here’s a list:
I’ll close this windy post with something I wrote whilst on holiday in Valencia in the spring of 2006.
The more that I try to learn languages, the more I am surprised to realize that the most touching and beautiful moments are those that require no words. And for the times that do, I am reminded that it truly is worth all the pain. Every tongue-twisting syllable, every elusive vowel or unfamiliar cluster of consonants, every foot-in-mouth moment or awkward silence, that panicky deer-in-the-headlights feeling — it is all worth it for just one second. Just one second where you can tangibly feel that you have left your own world behind and become one with another. The lights come on and for an instant, you understand. Comprehension dawns in a moment where no translation could retrieve the true meaning of what you heard in its original form, untarnished, with your own two ears.
That’s why I try. And that’s why it’s worth it.