The Frustration and Exhilaration of Learning a New Language

For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown . The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.

I started to give Jhumpa Lahiri's book, "In Other Words," the "Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet" treatment, but soon realized I would want to excerpt just about the whole book.  Lahiri's mother tongue is Bengali, but (like me) she spoke it only at home and learned English outside the home, and now in her adult life English is by far her base language (although her Bengali is far better than my extremely rusty Taiwanese).

She is a writer, and a skilled one at that, and life circumstance bring her to learn and then write in Italian.  She is now published in two languages, and this book is a beautifully written exploration of how she learns her new language and what it is like to write in that new language.  Again, I could excerpt the whole dang thing, it is that good; but let me just offer one more excerpt:

Should I dream of a day, in the future, when I’ll no longer need the dictionary, the notebook, the pen? A day when I can read in Italian without tools, the way I read in English? Shouldn’t that be the point of all this? 

I don’t think so. When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort. I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me. 

I realize that in spite of the limitations the horizon is boundless. Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility . I know that, since I’m an apprentice , my work will never end. 

When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die , because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.

I'm not nearly as articulate as Lahiri, nor does my profession allow me to dive so deeply into language issues.  But as I muck through learning Mandarin, I find myself feeling similar frustrations and experiencing similar exhilarations.

Let me start by saying I am painfully bad at Chinese.  My audio lessons ask me to say something and then pause for me to say it, and I almost never know how to say it, and even if I do I can't do it in the time given.  Why?  Because I have to figure out what order the words go in (because Mandarin grammar is different from English), then I have to remember how to say each word, and if that wasn't bad enough Mandarin is tonal so I have to remember what inflection to give each word.  By the time my puny brain has processed all that, my audio lessons are already onto the next sentence.  Dur!

Having once spoken Taiwanese, and having taken a year of Mandarin in college, I have something to work from when it comes to decoding grammar.  And, I have a base of words that I no longer have to translate from English but I just "know" as being those things (recall my clunky example a while back about "cat").

But other words are brand new to me, and I have to figure out how to remember them, and I often do not.  If I had time I would enlist human help, because that feedback loop would be useful, but my Mandarin is so primitive and slow right now that even simple conversations would be arduous exercises.  I hope to get there in a few months.

So it's a lot of slogging and a lot of "I forget" and a lot of "I didn't say it right."  Which is a healthy thing for this Type A person to experience.  As are some small victories of recognition and good pronunciation.  Lahiri's relationship with Italian is beautiful, while mine with Mandarin is far patchier.  But it is a thing in my life, and it adds texture to my life, and for that I am grateful.  And one day I will be able to have a conversation with someone in a language besides English, and that will be really fun.
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