My first experience with learning a language was not, as you may be thinking, learning to master the trill in Spanish words like perro or gargling with water so I could better pronounce German phrases such as Ich suche dich. No. Rather it was when I was studying for the SAT and learning for the first time words that sounded completely foreign and alien but which I had probably heard and encountered countless times. Words such as corpulent, lachrymose and irascible found their way into my lexicon and changed my life in ways I never could have imagined. As I acquired these new words my cognitive functions changed. Suddenly I could watch an intellectual program on TV and understand it better than before because certain words didn’t fly over my head like they used to. I would read voraciously and not get stumped on certain sentences thanks to this new vocabulary. These transformations gave me an extreme sense of satisfaction and a new found sense of sophistication. I felt like a completely different person yet I was still myself. I was like a new version of my old self and it was exiting and thrilling to feel this way. The world seemed to open up for me with a myriad of possibilities and at times nothing seemed impossible.
My second encounter with learning a language occurred while I was attending a community college in upstate New York. It was required by the college that students in my major--Liberal Arts--take a full year of either Spanish or French. Having had a bad experience with French in high school I decided to try my hand at Spanish since I thought it would be easier. I passed beginning Spanish with flying colors and decided to go on to intermediate Spanish even though it wasn’t required. In those two years I came to know a lot about a language of which before I had been almost entirely ignorant. Having lived in California, I had bought in to the belief that Hispanics were going to take over the country and take all of our jobs. One of my first voting experiences was voting for one of governor Pete Wilson’s bills that would have denied medical coverage and other social services to illegal immigrants. A few years later when I moved to upstate New York and began learning Spanish I regretted those years spent in the dark. I found that Spanish is a beautiful language and is quite easy to learn and speak. Being able to maintain a few minutes of fluent conversation in Spanish was a joy I had never before experienced. To be able to speak, listen or write Spanish for a few minutes and completely understand it was a gratifying experience. Communicating in a language that before sounded like gibberish caused me to embrace Hispanic-Americans rather than view them as people on the margins of society. Whenever I could I sought out native Spanish speakers to practice my new Spanish with. At my college I befriended a group of Latino girls who knew very little English and we would sit together in the library or the cafeteria and take turns conversing in broken English and broken Spanish. The tradeoff was that I got to practice my Spanish while they got to practice their English so it was a win-win situation. This experience with Spanish formed a nascent desire in me to see what is outside of the lens I view the world through. It is a desire I still have today and although I still feel like I am just scratching the surface of the periphery outside of my lens, there is a whole lot to be learned from just a cursory study of a foreign language.
My latest experiences with learning languages has been just that--more scratching at the surface. I took a fast-paced six week Italian course this summer and got a graze-over of the basics of the language. Unfortunately, I have forgotten most of what I learned--when you cram it all in like that it doesn’t seem to stick--but those six weeks gave me a flavor of the Italian language and the Italian culture. My current experience with German is only one month old but I already feel like I’m starting to get a grasp of some of the most fundamental aspects of the language. German is the only language I have encountered thus far that I have actually had difficulty with the pronunciation but I am slowly making headway. I have always loved to hear German spoken and I am looking forward to the thrill of both hearing it spoken and actually knowing what the speakers are saying.
Learning languages has taught me much about the world and the various people who live in it. One would like to believe that people everywhere are all the same but my experience with language has taught me that this is not the case. Language drives a wedge between societies, between races and between individuals. At the tower of Babel when God confounded the tongues of all the people standing about the tower so that they could not understand one another--the world very much continues to be like this today. Every language carries with it a unique thought process and nuances that cannot be translated across languages or across cultures. Consider the English language for an instance of this. An English speaker with a large vocabulary is able to put his or her thoughts into sophisticated strings of sentences and phrases whereas an uneducated English speaker may often feel the frustration of not being able to articulate their thoughts coherently. Now consider the differences that would arise between the average English speaker and, say, the average French speaker. If one considers all the different languages, dialects and Creoles there are one can instantly imagine the limitless sea of distinct personalities that exist in the world. The Bible says there is only one soul that flows forth from God, but there is a prism that catches this soul from its source and reflects it into an infinite number of different souls. That prism is language.