Monday, January 18, 2010

Confessions of a Monoglot

For someone who would love to fancy herself a writer, I have absolutely no talent in language. Well, let me rephrase. I have adequate command of the written English language. I often joke, however, that my written vocabulary significantly exceeds my spoken vocabulary-- not because I don't know the words but because I simply cannot pronounce the words correctly. I often settle for words that don't exactly convey the true meaning and intent because at least I won't make an ass of myself if I say the word incorrectly. (I once pronounced the word "hypothetical" "hi-poth-i-call" in front of my entire 150-person MPH Biostatistics class and almost died of shame when, yes, everyone in the room burst out laughing. And let's not even talk about "posthumously.")

I distinctly remember the day that I discovered that language acquisition was not my forte. I was about 9 and struggling through 3rd-grade phonetics (Mrs. George, how I hated chanting those charts out loud: "PH says ffff, TH says thhhh"). I was sitting at my parents' kitchen table eating lunch and reading a list of clothes that my father was planning on ordering from L.L. Bean (these were the days of the catalogue phone orders, mind you). I saw the word (forever burned in my memory) written out next to "pants" and I could not figure it out. I asked my father how to pronounce the word and I will never forget the incredulous look on his face. "Sound it out, Elisabeth. You know this word. You've heard it before." I struggled and struggled for what felt like an hour but was probably three minutes, and still, I couldn't figure it out. I wanted to shout to my father, "I may have heard it but if I haven't seen it, it's meaningless to me!"

When he finally said the word out loud, I felt like a dipshit (though, that word had yet to be in my vocabulary). The silent "k" combinations had yet to be covered in my phonetics class.

"Khaki." Please.

I've tried my best to move forward from my 9-year-old self. I studied Spanish through high school and in college every semester my entire four years. I even studied abroad in Spain, desperate to learn another language and prove myself to be better than those Amerophiles who refused to learn foreign languages based on principle. I flopped at Spanish. Next on my list was Kiswahili during my stint in Kenya, at which I also failed.

Well, perhaps "fail" is too strong a word. I actually had an amazing grasp on the rules and structure of both foreign languages. I loved seeing how sentences and thoughts fell together, how the rules guided the parts of speech, the nuances of verb tenses. Even the structure of the noun classes of Swahili opened a whole new world for me. But for the love, I could not pronounce a damn thing correctly in either language. My tongue always felt thick in my mouth, unable to make the proper combination of sounds at the right time.

Fast forward to my life in the present. I've given up on foreign languages. Completely stopped. It's been five years, more or less, since I've even attempted speaking more than a short phrase of anything other than English. Whenever my linguistic past arises in conversation, people always smile knowingly and say, "Oh, it'll come back to you if you just practice." I have to refrain from outright laughter and tell them that it was never really there in the first place. No one ever believes me, though.

One of the best things about working at an international organization is the languages. Every day that I walk into that office, it's like being greeted by the Tower of Babel. It's not just languages spoken by our clients, but our staff, too. Each day, there's a good chance that I will hear each of these languages: Arabic, Burmese, Karen, Karenni, Nepali, Farsi, Spanish, Cuban, Russian, French, Swahili, Kirundi, Chin...the list goes on. My office mate alone speaks four languages fluently and I am beginning to pinpoint who she is talking to on the phone by the sounds of the words coming out of her mouth.

The hum of foreign languages flows around me, seductively luring me in, enticing me to want to learn again, to pour over lists of flashcard vocabulary and learn new rules and structures of speech. I hate that I am that typical American, unable to communicate with anyone outside of my language because I think it truly hinders my ability to understand a culture. Understanding language and syntax is the first step to understanding a different worldview. Language is the first glimpse a novice has into the way things fit together in the mind of the other. I've always wondered if lovers who speak different language use their mother tongue in that critical moment of passion or clumsily try to use their common language to express their mutual feelings of ecstasy. I marvel when I hear the sounds of other languages spilling out of others' more fortunate mouths, "Does that sound/grunt/tone actually mean something to someone? Amazing!"

But I must accept my shortcomings. I will never be able to seamlessly switch between languages to use the words that best describe my intent. I will always be clumsy and never witty in another language. I am confined to reading inferior English translations of Tolstoy and Sartre and Rumi, never to grasp the full beauty of their written word.

Here is my confession: I am, and will never be more than, a monoglot.


The Rejection Queen said...

Hey don't feel bad. I have no talent in language either.

jenny said...

I happened upon your blog through the 'next blog' tab and have to ask- do you work with refugees???

I know exactly what you mean about the Tower of Babel...I especially enjoy when I'm in the office and one person is speaking in Bosnian, another in Swahili, another in Burmese, another in Spanish, and I'm just trying to say 'hello' 'how are you' 'thank you' and 'you're welcome' in as many languages as we have clients...

Anyway, where do you work? I'd like to hear more about your experience :)