Fear of language.

I think I’ve been afraid of learning new languages specifically because I’m so addicted to the precision with which I can communicate in English. There’s also the fear of causing offense, mispronouncing, or even using the wrong language. When the nice man at Costa Rica customs asked me how long I’d be in the country, I immediately said “Drei Wochen.” (Muchas gracias, Frau Vojtko.)

There’s also the natural tendency of the native speaker to assume that the struggling speaker is actually stupid. My favorite example of this is when I was on the train from Chennganur to Madurai in India, and had eaten a snack, and was sitting holding the wrapper in my hand. The women across from me got agitated. They pointed to the wrapper and then to the window, over and over. I knew what they meant, but there was no way I could communicate, “I’m waiting to drop this into a designated trash receptacle at some point in the future,” much less all of the accompanying cultural constructs. Finally one of them grabbed the wrapper out of my hand, threw it out the window and gave me a look as if to say, “See!? GOD.”

But since I’ve been in Costa Rica, the shame of not being able to communicate at all is outweighing the fear of communicating badly. I used to think that I shouldn’t attempt a new language unless I can get as good as Nabokov. Which is total bullshit. That’s what people tell themselves to keep from writing, period—“I shouldn’t write unless I can be as good as X.” Of course, every X had to begin, and most weren’t good for a long time. (Ursula taught herself Latin at age 75 so that she could write Lavinia. What’s my excuse?)

So what language(s) should I learn? I’m torn between learning for curiosity (Japanese, Malayalam, Swahili) and learning for utility. But since travel is a major priority in my life, I’m leaning towards the latter. So, first Spanish (duh), which lets me travel to all these countries; and then French, so I can get around all the former French colonies. I’m on the fence about Hindi, since English is actually the lingua franca of India (among the educated classes, at least). It might be that Arabic would be more useful.

After that, I could learn just for the pleasure of it. Forse bella Italiana…

5 Comments on “Fear of language.”

  1. Allison says:

    I understand the roots of your fear of language so well! Even after years of speaking, reading and writing Spanish with relative fluency, I still feel that I will never reach the level and ease of expression I enjoy in my native tongue. That being said, learning another language well not only enables you to travel more easily – it also opens up other ways of understanding the world, through the different phrasing and forms of expression available to you in that other language (you do, of course, have to become comfortable enough to stop translating from English and start thinking in that language for this opening to happen). We assign language (symbols, after all) to things from a worldview inextricable from our own culture, and so it follows that learning another language well opens up other worldviews. Those glimpses are well worth the effort. ¡Te deseo suerte, querida!

    • Allison, I´m so glad you weighed in! I’ve been thinking of you this whole time, about listening to you on Skype when you stayed at my apartment, and how lovely that was and how much I craved that ability. And yes, I keep having to correct myself, saying in my head “Leche isn’t milk…leche is the white creamy stuff in the glass! LECHE!” You know what I mean.

      Anyway, I’m thinking of taking initial lessons at home this fall to get reflexes nailed down, and then go immersion in Belice. (Speaking of which, you HAVE to go to Belice. I absolutely loved it there. Caving = old school Allison/Monica adventure :))

  2. Leah Kaplan says:

    Hey Monica, anytime you want to come out to Italy and sound foolish I’m waiting for you! I adore Costa Rica, oh the jealousy!!! But really, you should hit the caribbean English speaking coast if you want to enjoy both Costa Rica and eloquence 🙂

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