Why Being a Language Learner Looks an Awful Lot Like Being a Crazy Person

To be clear—I am not a language learner as in "I go to a dedicated class each week".  I could.  There are classes available to me.  There are Polish conversation groups I could join.  I have access to apps and online programs and a host of resources I could use to learn this language more quickly and efficiently.  And I am not using any of them.  

I just want to get that out of the way, in case you thought I was asking for your pity.  Or, demanding your patience with my progress.  I’m doing neither of those two.  There is a great deal more language learning energy that I could be expending that I am not.  I do not suffer any delusions that I have earned anyone’s forbearance through my own efforts.

Anyone you encounter in your own country who doesn’t speak your language probably has more resources than what they’re accessing as well.  I just want to agree on that.  Because I don't want to get stuck on things like deserving or earning or effort.  I want to put all that aside and just let you look inside.  I offer you a peek into the inside of living in a country where I don't speak the language.  

Because my recent shopping escapades are really pretty par for the course.  Being a language learner (even a casual, accidental language learner) means that I do many, many things that make me appear bizarre, unhelpful, unresponsive, and downright crazy.

With that in mind, I offer a few insights into what’s going on beneath the surface of those strange interactions.  So, let us pretend for a moment, that you are a random Polish citizen who has the dubious pleasure of encountering me in a context where we will attempt to have a conversation.

If my interest in you seems narrow

When we meet, I will always say the same pat phrase to you.  Judging by your reaction, I am clearly pronouncing it very poorly.  The next time we meet, I will use this same greeting agin.  And again the next time.  This is not because I’m either unimaginative or an automaton.  It’s just the only phrase of greeting that I know.

You can ask how I’m doing, but only in the one form of that question that I understand.  I will ask you the same.  But, if you are anything other than “Fine” I will not be able to acknowledge (or process it).  It’s not I’m not genuinely interested in how you’re doing, or a great many other things about you.  It’s just that I always operate with an underlying fear that you may veer from the very narrow path that I understand.  That’s what keeps me in the same narrow ruts of conversations.

If I seem Unresponsive

Similarly, if you are a thrift store clerk and are weighing my purchases to see how much I owe you, please do not be offended when I only smile weakly at your cheerful banter.  Same goes if you are the nice man standing in front of me in a long line and turn around to chat—presumably about the difficulties of long lines.

If it seems like I just want to accomplish my business of the day and get out of there, it’s not that I want to be transactional.  It’s just that I have so few tools to respond with.

Recently, we were taking a tour with a guide, whose English actually seemed very good.  But, every time we asked her a question, she continued on with her tour as though nothing had happened.  I understood completely where she was coming from with this.  We have got to stick to the script.

If I Behave Bizarrely

So many of my strange behaviors can be explained by the strained circumnavigation that is a necessary part of language learning.  But, that only accounts for a small part of all the social faux pas I am bound to make.  That’s because there is so much more than just language that I’m learning.   The things that seem obvious to you simply aren’t obvious to me.  Not just puns and idioms.  I mean basic expectations.  Easy stuff like whether to shake hands or greet with a hug.  And, harder stuff like how close to stand and whether or not you’re actually angry when you use that particular tone of voice.

And then there are things that are so random and specific to a culture that no culture teacher would ever think to mention them.  I had one such experience many years ago in a Japanese school yard.  Yochien (the preschool/kindergarten that my oldest two attended) had just been released and all the children were playing on the playground:

One of the other moms comes up to me and starts chatting.  I smile and exchange the few pleasantries that I know, but after that, I'm reduced to nodding, hoping I'm not agreeing to anything too outlandish.  But, then, I can tell that she's asking me something about my oldest son.  I try to make sense of the question.  She's not asking how old he is—I know that one.  Maybe which class he’s in?  I try that, but it doesn’t seem to satisfy her.  From her tone it seems like this is just fun Mom banter, but I can’t figure out what she’s asking.  Finally, she calls over another mother who speaks English (privately, I’m just pleased she doesn’t call over one of the English speaking students.  It’s always humiliating to have to go through a 4 year old interpreter).

This new mom explains that the first was asking me my son’s blood type.  His blood type.  I am now just as confused as I was before.  She goes on to explain that in Japan, there is a superstition, maybe similar to horoscopes, that holds that your blood type indicates certain things about your personality, including who is a good match for you romantically.  This mom had observed that her daughter and my son were playing particularly well on the playground together and wanted to know if they were compatible in the long term.

Somehow, the words for blood type, nor this fairly obscure belief had never come up in any of my Japanese workbooks yet.

If I Seem Stuck Up or Disinterested

And, lastly, know that there may be some days when I can’t muster the energy to make even my feeblest of efforts.  If I happen across you in a reception room or in the park one day, and you try to start a conversation, some days I may do little more than respond with an apologetic, “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak . . .”.  It’s not a comment about you or your language.  It doesn't convey my feelings about being here and sharing this home of yours.

It is only that sometimes, I am entirely trapped inside my own fear or exhaustion.  Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to face one more conversation that might spiral in one of a million directions I don’t understand.  And, sometimes, I am just so tired of feeling outside.  

It can get so discouraging to say a word or two and watch a hooded expression close over someone’s eyes.  Oh.  She doesn’t speak my language.  I’m finished with this interaction. I don’t blame anyone when they shut down.  I know they may be acting out of their own fear and uncertainty.  I just acknowledge that it is hard—for all of us—to have this thing standing between our ability to share even the smallest of connections.

The Parts that Aren’t Crazy

But, with all the hard and scary and just plain strange that comes with living in this “outside the walls” sort of way, there are compensating wonders.  Moments when connection happens beyond the bounds of language.  I cherish these.


Every Smile

No stranger’s smile is as warming as one offered in response to my broken attempts at a language.  Every smile, every willingness to laugh along with me as I stumble through unending strings of consonants feels like such a gift.  There is a woman at my local deli counter who is one of my most ardent Polish fans.  She smiles, she bears with me as I slaughter my order, and is happy to interpret my pointing at cut meats and sausages.  

I know that it’s no one’s job to deal with my horrible Polish.  So, when they do choose patience, when they do choose to enunciate for me, to repeat again and again, to smile broadly, to connect—this is an invitation.  An invitation inside the world built by their language.  An invitation to keep trying.  


Communion, if Not Communication

Once one syllable escapes my lips, it betrays me as a non-Polish speaker.  Typically that’s enough to either turn off my interlocutor or have them switch to English.  But, very occasionally, it will make no difference at all.  Every once and a while, a stranger will barrel on as though nothing is amiss at all.  Old ladies in the produce aisles are the very best at this.  No matter how broken or accented my Polish, they happily keep chatting away at me.  Asking me to get them a cabbage that’s too high for them to reach.  Handing me their mushrooms to weigh.  They are entirely unfazed by my confusion, or my bumbling with the few words I do know.  I cannot express how much these encounters buoy me.  To be treated as though I understand (even when I don’t) is to be included.  And, on lonely days in a sea of words that I don’t understand, this is precious.

That is why I keep trying.  Imperfectly.  Sporadically.  But, I keep at it.  Because every word that I learn is a new piece to this secret.  Every sentence that suddenly holds meaning for me or sign that I can decode makes me fall a little more in love with this culture and people.  It is a living, breathing puzzle made up of 55 million mysteries.  Every person who sees the world through the lens of this language is the reason I keep learning.

To the Mamas

Mamas, I say all of this to you in particular.  Because it is most often the Mamas who get left behind in the language divide.  Often husbands work in environment where they’re either supported in learning the language, or it's demanded of them.  The mothers are far more likely to either be isolated in a home or surround themselves with others who speak their own language.  Often, they are in jobs where the country’s language isn’t needed to complete their work.

On their behalf, I offer you an invitation.  Reach out to these Mamas.  Do not underestimate the impact of even a small and fleeting connection.  Let them be seen.  Speak with them.  Even if they blush and protest.  There is a compliment in being included, even when you don’t entirely understand what’s happening.  Maybe especially if you don't understand.  Bear with them if they seem disinterested, unresponsive, or don’t quite know what they’re supposed to do.

Remember that swimming in her Mama breast is a heart beating just as hard as yours, in a rhythm you can both understand.