There are three of us in my German class this semester. Vince is the teacher in this class, though one might forgive you for thinking that I’m the one that is giving the lectures. “We have something like Goldilocks and Three Bears”, Vince says. “Quieter, just in the middle, and”, he says now turning to me, grin and all, “most loquacious”.
Loquacious is defined by Meriam-Webster as being:
This is the $20 SAT word that is most often been attributed to me; and not without good reason. While I fancy myself a quiet and reflective person in private, those that know me, and those that I feel most comfortable around, have been victims of my loquaciousness. Even more so, I have often done my own self a laundry list of disservices usually finding my foot in my mouth more times than it’s in an actual shoe.
As to how I got like this, I think it goes back to my roots.
Picture this; it’s Sunday morning, you’re a child that has just sat through the Catholic Rite of Mass, fidgety and drained simultaneously, the only thing you want to do is head back to the sweet embrace of your home where you can lay down and relax or run around free (whatever you feel most up to). There is only one thing standing between you and this sweet Elysium of release; your mother. My mother had//has the most wonderful habit of getting in lengthy post-mass discussions. My siblings and I understood, of course- just as we do now- she has friends, and with her sunny/open personality it was hard for her not to be so delightful and friendly. But, we were kids, so often we’d just ask for the keys to the car and sit there and wait- usually taking bets as to when she’d finish.
So maybe I got it from my mom? That Italian-American knack for conversing. Perhaps. But even that is not enough, honestly. I suppose it has only gotten worse over the years as I’ve gained more self-confidence and an obsession with English cadence; maximizing expression through sound and rhythm. But more recently, I have come to appreciate my use of language in a different way- how you might ask?
Rene is sitting across from me; the both of us are sharing delicious ice cream desserts on the corner of Rotenturmstraße. In what has become almost commonplace for me, I mix German phrases in with my English from time to time.
“Ja, genau. Es ist selbstverständlich!”
René seems to pick up on something.
“You know, it’s funny”, he puts down his spoon for a moment. “When you speak German, it suddenly becomes so grounded, a bit slower, “Ich Spreche…” He trails off, but I nod my head in agreement. This very same point René has made is one that has been on my mind constantly since I have been back in Vienna.
My German, being still in need of work, often limits my ability to express myself. My speech becomes slower; I have to think about if I have the words I need to express my thoughts and then how to sort those words and thoughts grammatically. I hesitate, and perhaps, give a bashful reply to someone, at best.
I try not to beat myself up over this that much- that was often my mistake last time. I am still learning, and that is okay. But, it does get frustrating sometimes. Trying to speak another language in a new place always promotes the temptation of wanting to directly translate your natural self-expression in your mother tongue to that of the new tongue you are learning. This does not seem to always work out. For me, the best way I can describe this experience is by way of a quote from Aladdin.
While I do not think I have some connection to Phenomenal cosmic power, I do think that when we speak our native language, we feel invincible to some extent. Our native tongue is what we know best, it is what we think in, what we feel in, what we live in. Connected to this native tongue is every experience we have ever had and every ability to express ourselves- language is phenomenal cosmic power!
The itty bitty living space, however, comes with learning a new language. Unlike the geenie who is stuck in the tiny lamp, we can at least outgrow these first conditions. It takes time, but it can be done. Till then, however, the new language feels cramped and awkward. We would rather be free of it. We cringe and complain; speak slowly, and hope for the best.
But this is okay. This is the importance of learning a new language. We are forced out of our most basic and immediate comfort zone. We are not only forced to confront a new language but the phenomena of language itself. In this way, every word becomes important, every thought becomes considered. Learning a language requires the recognition that it is not a 1 to 1 process. On our journey through the language learning desert, we may not enter the promised land the same way we came; change is necessary. Surrender to the language, rather than fighting it, is essential. Language learning is an examination and exploration of the reality of language, culture, and self.
Being an English speaking American abroad is a privilege beyond words. Because of the role and interaction of English speaking countries throughout world history along with the economic driving of said countries, it is very hard to travel and not find someone that speaks English. This is okay and helpful if you are someone that is just a tourist visiting for a few days, or someone like me who is still in the process of learning. Though if you are also someone like me who is abroad for weeks, then this can also be a dangerous crutch.
The fact of the matter is that you can be a cozy English speaker abroad, maybe only requiring a few phrases here or there to get by. This only made worse by the fact that in America, a secondary language is often thought of unnecessary. Of course, this isn’t without good reason. As pointed out, most English speaking American could get along just fine with their native tongue abroad. But also, why would Americans need to learn a second language? Outside of traveling or international business, at home, there doesn’t seem much need. The only real linguistic variations nearby, speaking in terms of nations, is French Canadians to the north, and Mexico/Central America to the South. “America is not like the linguistic diversity of Europe”, some will say, and therefore “secondary language learning is not necessary.”
America’s lack of language learning is reflected well enough in research findings
These articles are not hollow “Doom Sayers” either. At my own university, I have watched the Languages take hits and cuts left and right. People just do not view it as practical- especially languages which are not immediately translatable into dollar values or whose base of speakers do not live nearby (ie: like German). Outside of the school setting, however, linguistic diversity is stifled and suppressed. Not to dredge up a stereotype needlessly, but I have heard too many times in today’s world the same thing that was said to my own immigrant ancestors when they came to America: “You’re in America now, speak English.” Language, a connection to a culture and way of life, severed and decimated.
It is sometimes understandable why we so often push away language learning. As said earlier, it forces us to confront something new, and perhaps even the unknown. It reminds us that the way we look and perceive the world is not the only way, and this can shake one’s self to the core. And, again, it is hard. Most Americans don’t have time to sit down and learn a language in their spare time, and in their everyday life, they might not find a chance to even use it (it might be hard to find someone who speaks the Igbo language of Nigeria, if you were learning it). We must recognize the benefits that language learning can give us, those benefits that often stretch beyond the supremacy of so-called “practicality.”
Four Americans, a Ukranian, a Russian, a Bulgarian, a Portuguese, and an Iranian all walk into a room. This is not the set up to some strange linguistic punchline, this is just how I spent my night last night. A dinner party, the modus operandi of everyone speaking was primarily English. But amid the usual wine infused banter and laughing, discussions of each person’s native language broke out. People spoke with each other about the quirks of their own languages, admired our ability to communicate with each other, and, of course, took pot shots at poor German.
It amazes and inspires me to see people so invested in language. Admittedly, it gets me antsy sometimes- like being at the base of the mountain and seeing the enlightened walk down its paths from their journey. But that is okay, I have to just keep trekking onward. I will get there one day soon.
….Anyways, I have done it once again- I have talked too much! Expect more from me in the coming weeks. For now, I have a cafe table with my name on it, a German learning book in my bag, and some hesitant German speaking. Slow and steady wins the race…