Sunday, June 14, 2009

Language guilt

Now, if there's anyone who can tell you about guilt, it's a former Catholic. I won't go messing that topic in with the subject of language learning other than to say that I have noticed in myself and in others a very real shame, embarrassment, and apology-inducing guilt that seems to accompany learning a new language. There are, of course, people who don't feel this way at all, but continue about their way, unabashedly speaking out (grammatically correct or otherwise), and not giving a hoot about who hears them make mistakes or not. I envy these people.

For many of us, however (myself included), not being able to express ourselves as we would like in our second languages can become a frustrating ordeal fraught with disclaimers, self-put-downs, and "I'm-sorry"s. How many times, for example, have you heard someone tell you, "I very sorry, my English not so good." Why are we so sorry?

Last weekend, after a very long trip to Maine and back, I could barely manage to keep myself awake, but I had to buy groceries to be prepared for the coming week. I went into Trader Joe's and, in the process of talking to many of my native Spanish-speaking co-workers, I found myself flailing and failing hopelessly to tell them about my trip. I didn't know the words for "canoe," "paddle," "oar," and a few others. Furthermore, words in Spanish were simply not coming quickly enough to my brain. I was caught in a sea of ahhhs, uuuuuuhs and ummms that washed over my speech repeatedly, like water lapping up over someone's face as they struggle to tread water. My friends are always nice, patient, and helpful, but a few of them kind of chuckled at my fight with the language. One even asked me what happened to my Spanish. Que te paso, Kristy? No has estado practicando? ("What happened to you, Kristy? You haven't been practicing?")

But I have. I told him. I've been practicing everyday. Reading, writing, listening, speaking... all of it. I had no good answer for him, except for apologies and self-degrading words about my declining abilities to express myself. One guy even tried to tell me something three times, and I couldn't tell if he was making a statement or asking me a question. I finally had to tell him to give up what he wanted to tell me because my brain wasn't processing Spanish very well.

I felt stupid, verbally clumsy, and, worst of all, personally responsible for my utter failure.

When I stopped to realize all that I can do, all that I can say in Spanish, and all of the friendships and interactions I have been a part of because of knowing all that I know, it seemed stupid to feel stupid. It's not my first language, for goodness sake! All of a sudden, I became acutely aware of this phenomenon. It is so strange to really think that the trials of language learning so often take on a weight of personal responsibility.

To illustrate further, I had one teacher in college who used to remark after we came to class late or didn't do our homework, "Y'all may not think I take it personal... but it's personal." He felt personally hurt when we didn't put in our effort into his class. Perhaps he thought it reflected on his teaching. To me, it seemed very clear that it wasn't his problem, but belonged to the people who didn't make a point to be on-time or ready for class.

And perhaps we shouldn't be taking it personally either when we don't conjugate a word correctly; when our native accents tarnish our attempts at pronunciation, when we can't think of anything else to say except, "good, thanks"; when we fail to remember the word for a ordinary, everyday object; or, heck, when we never knew that word in the first place. Could I maybe have studied more, practiced more, sought out more interaction? Sure, I'll bet I could have. But... life is too short to feel bad about things like that. It really is.

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