Supernerds, this is a story for you. What happens when an academic sets out to rectify the vast imbalance between book larnin’ and practical skills? I became obsessed with foreign languages in grade school. I used to carry home stacks of foreign language dictionaries from the public library. I could hardly believe these books were allowed out of the building! When I took my first language class in seventh grade, I talked so much about “M. L--- this” and “M. L--- that” that my parents thought I had a crush on my teacher. Uh, I’m 12 and he’s 30 and has a beard? My crush was on the French language itself. You never forget your first… Oh, but there were others, so many others. I took Japanese in high school, and Spanish, Latin, and Attic Greek in college, to name a few. It wasn’t for many years that I realized my years of classroom study had not led to any proficiency in speaking or conversing.
I mean, that’s the case for almost everyone in the US who has ever taken a language class, sure. What’s true for the majority has never mattered to me, since I think of myself as belonging to the 90th – 99th percentile. Unfortunately, that sets me up for fixed mindset problems. If I’m a “smart person” and I fail at something, then I must simply “lack aptitude.” It’s just not for me. Better to focus on something else where I can excel, right? We don’t like putting ourselves in positions where we’re awkward, where things don’t come naturally, where we might not be the best performers in the group. A new language puts us in the spotlight like nothing else. We literally can’t perform as well as diapered toddlers in using speech to communicate. It is really tough on the ego to go about with what feels like 1% of a complete vocabulary.
I learned recently that about 90% of Americans self-identify as shy. That tidbit induced in me an epiphany of grand scale. I have been wrestling with what I thought of as shyness, to the point that I’ve been in a public speaking club all year, and I still struggle to force myself to stand at the podium for more than 30 seconds. I have felt a similar issue with signing up for Skype language exchange or lessons. Being on video is an emotional experience for me, something I really only do with people I’ve known for at least 20 years. These specifics may be unique to me, but the feeling of shyness obviously is not. Suddenly it felt like a cop-out. Feeling shy is like not wanting to wash dishes, put away laundry, or stand in line. Almost everyone feels the same way. I don’t let “not feeling like it” or “not wanting to right now” stop me from cleaning my house. I’m not going to let those aversive feelings stop me from speaking my beloved languages, either.
What happened, though? What happened when I went to Spain and had to speak Spanish?
Blame my husband. He told me he had me all figured out. He’s a more or less completely fearless extrovert with an extremely high pain threshold. If he wants to do something, he does it; if he wants to say something, he says it. He’s not particularly strong on grammar, spelling, or pronunciation, but he’s an aerospace engineer, so he doesn’t have to care. He has nothing to prove. His identity isn’t built around language proficiency. Alas, I’m more of a Hermione Granger type. He knows I can’t sit and listen to him mangle a question or conversation if I know how to get the point across. It’s not that I’m correcting him; I despise that characteristic in other nerds and I find that the “correctors” are incorrect more often than not. It’s just that the interlocutor is left hanging, putting in extra effort and politely trying to understand. It’s more efficient for me to take over. He was right about me, which is maddening, but helpful. Once he primed the pump, I would find that I was able to speak.
He created a monster. Once I got over the initial speedbump of addressing a stranger in a foreign tongue, it wasn’t a big deal. I would quickly rehearse what I wanted to say. I went from “me Tarzan” level to confidently buying train tickets in just a couple of days. The first week, I was astounded that people clearly understood me, understood my accent, and responded the way I had hoped. This actually works?? Then I realized that this was one of the few areas where I had the advantage. My husband and I are both strong alpha types. He’s older, better traveled, has an advanced degree and a significantly stronger résumé, and seems to be good at everything. I asked him once if he could build a space robot that shot lasers out of its eyes, and, after confirming the specs, he said, “Yes.” Aha, but. Here we were in an unaccustomed role reversal. I could read all the signs. I mean, not to brag, but I once figured out whether a tub of margarine met my dietary requirements by reading the ingredients in Greek, because that was the one out of six languages on the package that I understood. He got nervous when we were physically running for a bus and the Catalan street signs didn’t match our Spanish map; I hadn’t even realized I was already mentally translating. I figured out the instructions for a German ticket scanner at the Munich airport. I read the French signs at Charles de Gaulle that got us to the tram. Suddenly, I was the natural leader with the unshakable confidence.
This could get interesting.
There are, as you know, four areas of language proficiency: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Most people perform at different levels in each of these four areas, even in their mother tongues. I have always been strongest at reading because it’s always been what interested me the most. I’m fair at speaking. I was fortunate to grow up in a multilingual neighborhood where I heard three or four Southeast Asian languages on a daily basis. My school also had music classes. I have a good ear and I’m a decent mimic. I’ll always have an American accent, obviously, but I have no problem pronouncing words and emphasizing the correct syllables. I can make a fair approximation of vowels and consonants that don’t occur in American English. What I found in Spain, though, was that I really, really need to work on listening comprehension. The trouble with speaking intelligibly, even at an A1 level like I was, is that the other person has no way of knowing how much you can understand. The better you sound, the more likely you are to find yourself suddenly drinking from the firehose.
There is a proportional mismatch between the conversation topics we’d like to explore, and the conversation topics we will confront in an immersive experience. My first experience of this was going through secondary search at the Hamburg airport. Okay, I can read and understand a bit of German, but I had never covered security-ese. I was scared and I felt really dumb and useless. Almost all of the vocabulary I needed on the first several days of our trip had to do with safety and security regulations, luggage, maps, directions, and buying tickets to specific locations. We were also hit a few times by waves of commercial speech, such as a store greeter who gave up on us only after about four sentences of advertising jargon. There were times when the conversation I wanted to have, such as whether a store carried a specific style of propane canister, was beyond my abilities. Sure, I can look up the vocabulary to say what I want to say, but the response often turns out to be only 10-20% intelligible. I feel like I’m imposing on people and wasting their time.
Sometimes we understand exactly what they said, but due to cultural context, we don’t understand what they meant. For the bar. For the bar what? Oh, you mean we can’t sit at this table unless we buy something. *facepalm*
We found ourselves in a couple of surreal situations. We went on a tour of the Pileta Caves to look at Neolithic cave paintings. We were on a tight schedule and we just wanted in. We agreed to go with the Spanish-language tour that was just leaving. I was almost completely unable to understand the simplest instructions about using the lanterns, walking in single file, etc. There were entire sections of academic talk about geology, material culture, paint composition, artistic techniques, etc, that I understood perfectly. There were a few 7-year-olds in the group, and the Venn diagram of our comprehension probably had almost no overlap. A few days later, we went to the General Archive of the Indies, and I was able to translate the display text line-by-line with up to 80% accuracy. It’s much easier to confront text, because you can pause, re-read, and go at your own pace. Listening to a human means you have to keep up, even if someone coughs and you miss a word, even if that person is also a non-native speaker like you. When you’re shopping or buying tickets, the clerk may not be a native speaker, either; every person in the transaction may be using an unfamiliar language. The complications are amplified. Language study can be practical altruism in action.
What I’ve found from being forced to speak is that it’s much easier than it seems. People anywhere other than the US tend to be really gracious and patient about listening to beginners speak. They will almost always correct your pronunciation or give you the word a native speaker would have used. If you attempt so much as a single word, it can often turn out that this person is perfectly fluent in English, and the transaction will be much warmer than it would have otherwise. Politeness formulas FTW. I’ve also found that listening to formal speech, such as a movie script or radio announcement, is a completely different skill than listening to spontaneous conversational speech. Conversation can be much easier, because people will slow down and accommodate you, but formal speech can be much more useful. “This is your captain speaking. Mumble bumble fumble.”
I’m diving into language study in a different way now. Now I understand how useful it is to drill down on those transportation chapters. I also believe that once you’ve nailed down the six basic verbs, it’s best to learn nouns. It’s easier to be able to say “smurf me a [propane canister]” than to use perfect grammar and vocabulary and have to try to sketch that vital object you need. I felt pretty dumb when, after sleeping in a tent for a week, I realized that I didn’t know what a tent was called. I felt validated about all the time I spent reading when I was in my familiar stomping grounds (museums, signs, brochures, academic lectures), but there was this big glaring gap when it came to activities of daily life.
I’ll keep studying. I’ll keep forcing myself to use the language abilities I have. I’ll keep pushing the boundaries of what I can do in a language: what I can communicate, rather than what I can consume. In ten to twenty years, I’d like to be pretty good.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.