I recently spent some time in a country whose native tongue was distinctly different than my own. Though I conversed comfortably in English with most people and felt only slightly left out when they’d engage in more familiar or urgent conversations in the melodious tones of Spanish, I also found myself in situations where I needed to communicate desires or fill uncomfortable silences in a forced and foreign dialect. Now, I wasn’t completely at a loss, I had traveled through Central America as a teenager, learned French as a child (a language similar in structure), and even taken a year of Spanish at university. Still, it had been many years, leaving most of my verbs not conjugated and the gender of inanimate objects offensively misdirected. But once I let go of my self-sabotaging inhibitions and allowed myself to flounder, fail and genuinely f- up, I had an experience of myself I rarely have speaking English.
For one, I realized how dependent I am on my well-stocked library of words and phrases when expressing myself or, most commonly, bailing myself out of awkward situations (though often it's what gets me into them in the first place, but that's another story). At first I felt like I couldn’t “be” myself because I was lacking the proper expressions to effectively communicate. Of course, this wasn't true. Not only because we all have different meanings and attachments to words regardless of the language anyway, but also because a label is strictly that, a label - it can never actually be the thing itself. I am not my expression, it is merely an effect of me. And there is no way to transmit my thoughts and feelings beyond another's ability to relate them to his or her own experience. (At least not yet, but if George Lucas has any say...) What I realized is this desire to be correct and precise, coupled with an equally pressing need to sound smart and well read, actually limited me from expressing genuinely and relating on a more human level.
Growing up with an English teacher for a mother and a preoccupation with being "right," it’s no trying task to see why I might end up with these beliefs; why the words “irregardless” and “disingenuine” are like nails on a chalkboard, or why I have an uncontrollable impulse to circle spelling mistakes on take-out menus. For these reasons, I think my undeniable limitations in Spanish turned into an unexpected gift. My tool box was so sparse, I was forced to use what I had in creative ways, think more simply about what I had to communicate, and even uncover tools I didn’t know I had. It’s amazing how the art of hand gesturing and animal sounds can really drive a point home. For the most part, I felt more expressive, more playful, more connected, and more curious. To understand people, I had to be present and pay close attention. Speaking English, it’s easy to feel like I know everything, just because I can designate a label and make logical distinctions, but in a place where my labels cease to function, I am forced to re-examine the essence of my experience. I can only imagine what it must be like for a child to discover the world in this way, through multiple languages. It seems there would be more freedom to explore, without rigid labels and cultural constraints. I may not be able to start over, but I can certainly add to my repertoire and push the boundaries of my conditioned definitions. Entonces, *in most exaggerated Midwestern accent* donde esta la biblioteca? ;-) (ah, the universal language of emoticons, where were you when I needed you?)
and let's not forget the universal language of the advertising...