Common ground

I don’t think I talk enough about how important language is to me.

When I was young, my mom would tell me that at night, I traveled in my dreams. You went to Korea, she’d say. And Venezuela, and Israel and made a quick stop in Australia. Next, off to Mongolia. I would wake up in a cocoon of sheets, hanging off the farthest tip of the bed.

When I was young, I made a list of languages I wanted to learn. I rearranged it every year. First, it was Korean, Hebrew, French, Japanese, Cantonese, Urdu and sign language. Then it was Pidgin, German, Korean, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Thai. I never counted less than seven languages at a time. I wanted to talk with the world.

So I took Spanish in high school. Tried to teach myself French. Enrolled in sign language classes, minored in Italian. Sat in on conversations in Portuguese. Ranked second in my Peace Corps class for fluency in Sesotho.

I’ve kept all the books, too. Pillars of dictionaries. Elementary Chinese books. Three manuals in Sesotho. Two Italian text books that I’ve indexed by tense, two sign language volumes and one Spanish book that I investigated heavily before purchase. Along the way, I’ve also picked up an introduction to Japanese.

A bilingual environment is rarely an organic thing. And here’s a phenomenon I’ve never fully grasped: As I became immersed in monolingual environments (Mandarin, Italian, Sesotho), my English suffered.

Picking up a new language meant knocking off words, one-by-one, from the last language I learned. As each term was peeled away, part of me went with it. I had nightmares where I’d start in one language only to end up in another, all the while thinking in yet another. It was all gobbledygook.

But the perspective languages grant is irreplaceable. The spontaneous relationship between sounds and meaning that only you, with your jumble of tools, could ever plumb. When you can graph out similarities and differences in just a kernel – just one word – among languages, you learn a lot about different ways to approach the same concept. It’s rich, and it’s marvelous.

But in the end, you’re still moving toward decay. And today, it was haunting; more than ever before, it hit home.

How frustrating it is not to be able to communicate! To be unable to express concepts and emotions, especially when someone who shares your same blood, the same life force as you, asks for help. How devastating when you realize the extent to which you can’t articulate in your mother tongue.

It’s never been enough just to understand or to string together a few sentences in that outermost ripple. Espangles, Chinglish… hybrids don’t cut it. You might have solid ideas or the skills to be helpful, but without the ability to meet on common ground, it falls too short.


Filed under: Ethnicity, Storytelling, , , ,

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