I had a moment, a little moment of glory that probably wouldn’t impress anyone but me. Still, it was exciting.
We were standing around at our gate in an airport in Belgium. It had only been posted a few minutes before. Belgium is such a laid-back place that the reader boards literally say, “Relax,” and that the gate will be posted at a later time. For almost every flight. They leave about half an hour between notification and boarding. Until then, you’re left to sit wherever seems likely.
We were standing around, having waited for no fewer than six hours, feeling like our flight would finally be underway.
Then I heard an announcement in French.
Belgium is a multi-lingual place. Everything is posted in French, Dutch, and English.
The announcement mentioned our flight, but instead of gate fifty-five, it said fifty-eight. I was sure of it.
Then the same announcement came through again in Dutch. I barely know fifteen words of Dutch, I only dabbled a little a few years ago, but the counting words sound pretty similar to either German or English. That was definitely an eight, not a five!
I was nudging my husband, knowing we would need to change gates. I figured the English announcement would come through any second now. Then he would hear it and I would be validated by an unimpeachably authoritative source.
There was never an announcement in English!
This might have been because we were the only English-speaking people on this discount European flight. Who knows? In all our travels this was the first time we weren’t catered to as monolingual Americans. In our complacency it had never occurred to us to prepare for a flight where we would have to interpret everything.
Either the gate change came through via text, or it posted somewhere, because I finally got my hubby into motion. Through serendipity, not only were we at the correct end of a terminal that includes sixty gates, but we happened to have chosen the correct gate for lounging purposes. We had to walk only a few yards, back to where we had been sitting earlier.
We were on the plane not even ten minutes later.
Could we have sat there stupidly at the wrong gate, waiting while our flight left without us? Would our names have been announced? Not sure. In 35 years of air travel, I have never missed a flight.
In any case, this experience rekindled the fire within me for language study.
I have been fascinated with foreign languages since grade school. My beloved second-grade teacher introduced the concept that not everyone spoke the same language, and that there were different words for things if you visited other countries. Nothing in my life has ever excited me that much. It seemed like maybe you could get some kind of secret decoder ring and eavesdrop on people, or that you could learn extra languages and have super powers.
I went to the public library and discovered that there were entire shelves of dictionaries and language study guides, and I was done for. Then I found a series of miniature language dictionaries at the local bookstore, and any chance of rescue was demolished.
As an adult, learning to sound out a new writing system, or recognizing one or two words on a magazine cover, makes me feel exactly as lit up as the seven-year-old I used to be.
The question is always, why aren’t we doing the things that we know delight us the most?
I’ve seen it over and over again. The mom who hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since her first child was born. The dad who gave up guitar even though his kids would love to hear him play. Everyone who ever quit dance or yoga or journaling.
In my clutter work, the equipment is the reason I know about these shuttered dreams. Even decades later, we’ll still keep all our gear, our handbooks, our special outfits. This means it’s not a matter of money. The cash investment has already been made, which is of course why we hate to let go - sunk cost fallacy.
I could go back to intensive language study any time I like, without a financial hit. People think you have to take classes or buy Rosetta Stone, but really you just do a language exchange for free with someone who speaks your target language and wants to learn yours. If you live in a major city, you can even meet in person. For instance, in Los Angeles I could easily find a language buddy in anything from Armenian to Vietnamese.
Why? Because it lights me up and puts joy in my heart.
There are other things that light me up, and fortunately I know what they are. Even more fortunately, they are pretty harmless, and mostly things that my husband and/or friends and family are willing to do with me. Chief among these is travel. While language study is fun in its own right, it’s extremely helpful in the context of travel.
One of the first things we do when we get to a new country is to stop at a grocery store and buy food. Sometimes this is easy, like when we buy fresh produce and generally know what things are. (Not always!) Other times, it is fraught with peril, like when the packaging vernacular is different than what we have at home.
What else is fun? Trying to decipher a list of ingredients when there are as many as six to eight languages on the label, and none of them are English!
I once, and this is true, figured out what was in a tub of margarine partly because I can read Greek and I sounded out ‘extra-partheno.’
Being able to pick out a few cognates here and there is hardly the same as being able to do simultaneous translations, or actually develop deep friendships with people who don’t speak your native tongue. It’s little more than a party trick.
Still, developing a little polyglot power can be useful, it can help your travel companions, and it’s interesting in a way that passively consuming entertainment will never be.
If you were going to study another language, what would it be?
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.
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