Fear of language.Posted: February 6, 2012
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…