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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!”

Hmph.

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:

-Polish
-German
-Spanish
-French
-Russian
-Portuguese
-Gaelic
-Welsh

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.

 

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Changes and the Familiarly Unfamiliar

I’m in Scotland.

I’m again confronted with the ever-familiar waves of knowing and not-knowing.  I know the fresh, washed scent of rain cleaned air, of chill breezes and the golden honey warmth  of sun.  I know the hill that holds Stirling Castle, and the Black Isle that peeks through the window from across the Moray Firth.  I know this building, but the view out the window has changed, and the flags that hang of St. Andrew’s cross, the lion rampant, the jolly roger, and St. George’s cross seem oddly disparate, though they grace walls which still hold familiar photographs.  Lone Tree on Rannoch Moor.  Buachaille Etive Mor.  Pap of Glen Coe,  Eilean Donan.  Inchkeith Sunset.  Familiar names.

The people here are now alien.  No Jordan or Julia or Nicole or Keith.  Instead there is Andres, Sandra, Howe.  Unfamiliar but kind.  As a former hostelite, they welcomed me with warmth and shared food and even tucked me in when I fell asleep on the familiar cushion of one of these black leather sofas, covering me with a fluffy duvet as I slept in a group of strangers.

The maps are well known, from John O’Groats to Skye to Aberdeen.  The voices are unfamiliar.  No Polish  do I hear, but French and English accents.  It has been…a long time.  The giant gulls call out their thoughts of the town and the surf.  Cars rumble across the Firth bridge.  The sun hides his face behind an oddly stagnant sky.

A whisper flits through me, a startling revelation.  Inverness feels like home no more. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep.  Perhaps it is the staggering mix of old and new.  It could be either of those things, but I think what it really is goes much deeper than a superficial makeover.  I’ve got a home.  Not even a physical home;  that’s in flux.  But there is someone rather than somewhere I need.  And he is very far away.  He has become my family, and where family is, so home is too.

More than anything, I wish he was here to share this place with.  Even shrouded in clouds, she has a glory and a cleanness that surpasses anything I have ever known.  There is wisdom in her aged glens, peace in her silver-smooth lochs, strength in her heather-clad mountains, and humility in the rushing of her surrounding sea.  I think if she could speak, she would tell me that she will always hold a place for me here.  And that the next time I return to her, not to come alone.

Museless Maunderings

I wanted to spend some time writing my book tonight.  What did I do instead?  Took a “nap” at 4:30 and slept until 10.  That’s what I get for this sleep schedule — I run myself to exhaustion, and then my body shuts down and I pass out.  That is not a good thing. Tomorrow is going to be a long day; we have a meeting at work (awful), I have a doctor’s appointment for my treatment, then I’m meeting a friend about living together.  All that is a long day for me with this injury.

In other news, I’m thinking a lot about the UK election.  The Tories made some significant gains.  I’m not hugely well-versed in UK politics, but I know enough to get by, and I’m not a fan of the conservative party.  For one thing, they’re super anti-EU.  They say they’re not, but when they say they’re going to introduce a big referendum on UK sovereignty immediately, that speaks to some sentiments I don’t like a whole lot.  But then again, I’m not a huge fan of the political UK as it exists — I think that Scotland and Wales should have sovereignty over their own issues.

Specifically, about Scotland, I cannot imagine that they are happy with this new government and with David Cameron at 10 Downing Street.  Only 15% of Scots voted for the Conservatives, and that leaves a whopping 85% who didn’t want the Tories in power, yet because they are still subject to UK sovereignty in many ways, they are going to have the Conservative agenda imposed on them.  I find that hugely immoral.  Even in the reddest of red states in the US, democrats get a higher percentage than that.

With the Scottish National Party in power in the Scottish Parliament, I really wonder what will transpire in the future.  It seems to me like this election is a decent chance for them to push their agenda, which is an independent Scotland.  I’m a big fan of devolution, and if independence is the right route for Scotland, I would support it wholeheartedly.  As long as her people want it, I say go for it.  I’d like to see a free and independent Scotland again.  I think she got bullied into signing the Act of the Union in 1707 and was treated infamously in the 18th century and into even the 19th and 20th centuries.

That said, I don’t think it would be as easy a route as the SNP would like it to be.  Even though Scotland does provide the vast majority of the UK’s energy between North Sea oil and other sources, it would necessitate a lot of very careful and diligent planning, as well as an attention to the actual needs of the people, which I’m not wholly convinced any government can really do.  We’ll see where it leads.

On a fully emotional level, the thought of an independent Scotland is enough to bring a lump to my throat.  I hope I live to see it happen;  honestly, I think it really is just a matter of time before it does happen.  I just don’t know if it will happen as soon as the SNP wants it to.  I’ve heard tell of a possible referendum as early as next year — if that’s the case, then wow.  We’ll see though.

Sigh.  I’ll admit, the biggest issue I have with the new gains of the Conservatives in the UK is what I’ve read about their stances on immigration.  What is it with conservatives in any country that immediately think slashing numbers of immigrants is the way to go?  It’s not a cut and dried issue at all, but in general, I think immigrants benefit countries.  It’s a large scale indicator of prosperity — if people want to move there, you must be doing something right.

Anyway, that’s really all I have to say about that.  I feel a little foolish dabbling in others’ politics, but those are just my two cents, unsolicited.

You Say Financially Questionable, I Say Necessary

Just a quick update to say that I am going to Scotland this summer! It was kind of a snap decision on account of me finding a good fare a solid $400 cheaper than anything else I had found, getting to see Julia, and taking a solid retreat into my favorite place in the world.

I cannot wait.  It’s been three and a half years since I was last there, at Christmas 2006.  So much has changed since then, but one thing’s for certain:  this is exactly what I need.

light and shadow

I don’t have anything extraordinarily witty to say tonight, nor do I really have any particular direction in which to write.  But my goal is to try to write a thousand words per day, and though I have been on facebook and the like, I don’t really think that counts.  So here I am.

Today hasn’t been the best day.  At best, I feel directionless…much like this blog.  Or rather, I know where I want to go, but I haven’t the foggiest idea how to get there.  At worst, I feel jangled and emotional, and I want to cry.  A lot.  I feel guilty for being home for the past three and a half weeks with my injury.  I’ve missed a lot of work, and I’m catching some flak for it.  I understand why; I mean, three weeks is a lot.  I also am feeling super weak and lame.  In the traditional sense of the word.  Lame as in debilitated.  I can barely stand for an hour without severe pain.  Driving is just as bad.  I’ve been pretty much alone in my room for the past three weeks, which has made me lonely and helpless, and although I don’t really want to throw a pity party, I just want to feel like a human being again.

I don’t want to be a negative person.  I know that negativity is far from attractive.  So I think perhaps I will use this entry as a chance to force myself to try an exercise my mom has pointed me at several times in the past.  So here it is — a list of the things I like about myself.

I’m compassionate.  I’m able to put myself in other people’s shoes pretty easily and try to get inside their heads to try and understand where they are coming from.  I’m also fairly empathic, and I tend to be very sensitive to others’ pain.

I am loyal.  If I care about someone, I will stick with them.  I’m also very tenacious and rarely give up on anything I’ve set my mind to.  I’m patient.  I’m creative — I like to make art.  My kind of art just happens to be with words, and I try to do it as best as I can.

I’m a daydreamer and I have a good imagination.  While it can get me into trouble on occasion, I like seeing the world through my own lens.  I think if I were less shy, I would have been a good actress.  I can read expressively and with emotion.

I’m good with languages, both my own and otherwise.  I’ve always been able to pick up new languages easily, which is cool because I really enjoy them.  On a purely superficial note, I like my eyes.

I’m only about halfway to a thousand words, and I have to apologize for the quality of this blog.  I have a bad headache that came on sort of suddenly, and I am a bit out of it.

I really want to travel more.  I am going to try and go back to Scotland this summer if I can find a cheapish fare.  I’m hoping to fly out of Toronto so I can see Julia.  I haven’t seen her for almost a year and a half, and I miss her terribly.  It’s funny how you can meet someone so briefly and form such a lasting relationship — that’s been oddly true about the most important relationships in my life.  I met Julia when we both lived at the Inverness Tourist Hostel, and we became best friends after only a few short weeks.  That was in 2005, and nothing has changed.  She is still one of the only non-blood related people I count among family.

I miss Scotland, as well.  A strange peace comes over me when I’m there, ever since the first time my feet touched the rather unromantic tarmac at the Prestwick Airport an hour south of Glasgow.  It’s a place I’ve returned to so many times (Scotland, not Prestwick) and just felt like I was home.  I don’t think I have ever seen a parallel to the beauty that exists in Scotland.  I remember driving through Stirling on Megabus and looking out the window as the sun slanted through the clouds and lit up the earth as though it had flipped a switch within.  I remember the golden sheen of the mist on the hills, the Wallace Monument rising like…well, to be honest, rising like a giant, spiky phallus.  Perhaps that just ruined the romance of the shot.  Ha.

I remember Dollar Glen and Loch Ness and the way the ocean at John O’Groats is such a deep navy blue and contrasts with the shining white sand.  The earthy scent of soil, dust, and rock that makes up the interior of the Maes Howe, the rough-hewn slats of standing stones.  The smell of peat and the warm amber brown it turns the Ness River.  The Sisters of Kintail and Glen Coe.  The lone tree on Rannoch Moor near the cone-shaped Buachaille.  I have a hundred thousand memories of Scotland, each one stored away like delicate treasures within my mind.  I know I will return someday — it’s only a matter of time.  I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.  And I long to share it with my boyfriend.

If I can get there this summer, I know it will be a short visit, probably no more than a week or two at the most, but it will be a time of renewal as well.  A time to refresh my memories, see some dear friends, and rest my weary soul.

In the film What Dreams May Come, they espouse the philosophy that we choose our own heaven, or at least that we create it from our minds.  If that turns out to be at all true, I know where mine would be.  It would be a land of drums, of silver-smooth lochs, of smoky scotch and the scents of the earth.  There would be stone circles and sapphire seas laced with white sand beaches and forests with floors of soft moss where the rowans turn the circle of the seasons as their branches burst into bloom, the blooms turn to snowy berries that ripen into deep red before the leaves fall once more.  An eternity there would be an eternity of bliss.

I don’t plan on dying any time soon, so for now, I’ll look forward to the time when I can jet my earthly body there.

Well, what do you know?  Over 1,000 words.