I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person. (Carl Rogers)
I am disturbed by the increased reports of people on the streets being attacked for speaking a different language. “You shouldn’t speak other languages” is a phrase shouted out regularly. Last month a mother and daughter, walking home from dinner, were attacked on the streets of Boston because they were speaking Spanish. The attackers punched, kicked and bit the two women, shouting “This is America. Speak English!” I am likewise disturbed by the US president calling the Coronavirus “The Chinese Virus.” These are words and language that can engender virulent reactivity and destructive action.
Language is a specific form of expression, a structured system of symbolic communication and it consists of three parts: signs, meanings and a code connecting signs with their meanings. A sign can be auditory, visual, tactile or kinesthetic and it is encoded and transmitted by a sender through a channel to a receiver who decodes it. Signs can be composed of sounds, gestures, letters, movement, posture, touch, clothing or symbols. Language can also be understood as a system of symbols by which a social group cooperates through communication via expressions of identity, play, imaginative representation and emotional release. In addition to spoken language is body language, the languages of fashion, filmic language, the language of the stage and design, the languages of dance, the language of music and architecture. The list continues.
Language plurality can be a great asset in life because it leads to a more open and accepting approach to the world. Because each word that we use resonates with personal meaning, the language that we use and how we use it shapes our behavior and our worldview. Without vigilance, we tend to default repeatedly to the same terms, phrases and expressions in the language that we are most accustomed to speaking. Because of that, it is hard to escape experiencing the same feelings, memories and emotions over and over again. Words have a biochemical effect and the words that we attach to our experiences become our experiences. I believe that changing languages, changing words, syntax or sentence structure, can also change how we think, move and interact with the world. Changing a language is changing a pattern. And each different spoken language is a conduit to traditions, cultures and the possibility of alternate perceptions of being alive.
My colleague Leon Ingulsrud, a strapping six-foot two redhead from Minnesota, grew up in a missionary family and spent many years living in Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese. When I am in Japan with him, I watch the incredulity with which the Japanese people who do not know him stare at him when he speaks. It seems beyond their comprehension that someone who looks like he does would sound like that. I also watch how Leon’s body language and demeanor alter radically when he speaks Japanese. But I have also noticed there are still traces of Japanese behavior in his life outside of Japan and I like to believe that this is a conscious choice on his part; that he enjoys switching codes.
Code switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or variety of languages in the context of a single conversation. Language plurality and the ability to code-switch is a useful skill and it is can be a tremendous asset as one negotiates a path through life. For someone who only uses one language, their tendency is to adapt a mainstream cultural identity due to being fully saturated in its particular values, ideals and customs. A language has the power to shape the worldview and identity of its users. With multiple languages, a person is more likely to embrace multiplicity and ambiguities.
Psychological studies show that bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers and the differences offer specific mental benefits. Speaking two or more languages can be a great asset to the cognitive process, improving the functionality of the brain by challenging it regularly to recognize and negotiate meaning and to communicate within different language systems. As a multiple language user, one’s focus is drawn not only to the mechanics of verbal communication – grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure – but also to the specific nuances of each culture. This increases an overall awareness of language, its construction and how it can be manipulated and contextualized. Distinguishing meaning from discreet sounds develops a better ear for listening, a skill that boosts one’s ability to negotiate meaning in other problem-solving tasks as well. Language skills allow one to become a more effective communicator and a sharper writer and editor. Learning multiple “tongues” advances the ability to switch between different structures, different mindsets and cultures. One becomes a better improvisor.
I am writing in English here, my “mother tongue,” a language that is deeply embedded in my bones, my sinews, my dreams and my past. English feels natural to me, a language that I can swim in with a certain fluency and ease. But in fact, each of us speaks in many languages throughout each and every day. Our bodies, our gestures and our facial expressions speak constantly to others. Our use of spatial language can either be eloquent and communicative or fuzzy and confused. Space, time and movement have a distinct grammar and syntax. How close or far do we position ourselves from others is a form of speaking to them. Where do we place pauses? How quickly do we move, speak or respond? How loud or how quiet are we? The grammar of space and time is something that we learn to negotiate throughout our lives.
My friends insist that I have a facility with spoken languages. I resent this assumption because, although I enjoy the study and the effort to learn, I do not have a natural aptitude for languages. I work very hard at each one. I choose each new language because I am interested and, to varying degrees, passionate about it and because the challenges are always palpable and real. And in the end, once I have reached a certain aptitude with the new language, I begin to feel the layers within me thicken, my connection to a new culture deepens, and another worldview comes into perspective. The new language has been my pathway to a different way of thinking and interacting with the world.
I spent my second year as an undergraduate in Athens, Greece where I studied Greek history, archology and ancient Greek theater. I also began to study the Modern Greek language. I loved the sense of freedom and delight that happened when I began to be able to speak with people I met and to understand what I was hearing in public places. I loved learning the Greek alphabet and reading signs and newspaper articles out loud. The Greek language is known as “the smiling language.” Indeed, the language happens largely in the front of the mouth and I found that I could indeed speak Greek better when smiling. And smiling changed the way that I felt. Indeed, speaking Modern Greek made me feel and experience new sensations and think new thoughts. I found that I interacted with people differently when speaking Greek than when speaking in English. I was more brash and uninhibited in Greek. I was less polite and more playful. Through the new idiom, I was also able to draw nearer to the Greek culture.
Unfortunately, in the years since, I have not kept up with Modern Greek. I no longer feel the glee, abandon or facility in speaking it. Greek is no longer accessible to me and now I can only struggle with the rudiments of the language to make myself understood or to understand what I am hearing. But I feel that I could re-enter that arena with effort and study and the desire to do so.
To me, learning a new language always feels like climbing a steep mountain; a massive, beautiful problem, always challenging, generally fascinating, often frustrating. Early on in the process, I feel quite out of my depths, in the same way as when I learned how to swim for the first time. Shortcuts have never worked for me. Learning requires hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many awkward conversations. My ego gets pulverized, my sense of who I am is reduced to rubble. I sometimes feel like a babbling baby forced to stammer out even the simplest ideas. But one of the reasons that I embrace the study of foreign languages is because it forces me into a territory in which I feel out of control, embarrassed and out of my element. Within these disorienting experiences, I can learn a lot about myself. Normally in life I do not want my own ignorance to be exposed and so I tend to avoid embarrassing situations. While learning to speak a new language, it is impossible to avoid that embarrassment.
My first long-term relationship provided an in-depth dive into the French language. She was from Paris France and her family were bohemian in the very best sense of the French intellectual bohemia. For ten years she corrected my French. Her father, a filmmaker who reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard, was one of the most erudite people I had ever met who had absolutely no interest in speaking English. For ten years I had the privilege of listening to him discourse on everything under the sun. He presented me with new ways of thinking about art, language and politics, introducing me to Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Guy Dubord, Fluxus and the Situationists. I had studied French in high school, but it was not until I spent a lot of time in France in that family that I became serious about getting into the bone and marrow of the French language. The emersion with the language gave me access to the French culture and its idiosyncrasies. The language and the culture slowly worked on me, altering my interests and my way of perceiving the world.
In the late 1970’s, the German language landed on my doorstep. I became intoxicated with what was happening in the theater scene in Germany, specifically with the work of Peter Stein’s Schaubühne in West Berlin. I first encountered theSchaubühne when, in Montreal, I saw a film of Summerfolk, a play by Maxim Gorky directed by Stein. I sat afterwards in the cinema, stunned but also galvanized. Having no idea about what to do with my new love and infatuation, the day after seeing the film, I signed up for German classes at the nearest Deutches Haus. And thus, began a long journey that led to many adventures, including invitations to direct plays in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For my first job in Berlin I decided to take the leap and not to speak any English. At first this was awkward because many of the actors and designers spoke English better than I spoke German. But I persevered and through my desire to communicate, the German language began to do its work on me, changing my thinking, changing my points of view, changing my feelings, perceptions and understandings.
I am currently studying Italian, a language that feels glorious to speak but because it is a new language for me, once again I feel uncomfortable, tongue-tied and I struggle every step of the way. What makes this process now particularly awkward is that I have also been studying Spanish. I started to study Spanish well before Italian and so I have far more facility in Spanish than I do in Italian. I am getting mixed up. There is lots of cognitive dissonance.
What makes the situation particularly disorienting is that Spanish and Italian have similar roots. Both are Romance languages; both are derived from Latin which was the language of the Roman Empire. The sentence structures are similar. In fact, the lexical similarity between Spanish and Italian is over 80%, meaning that 4/5ths of the two languages are comparable but, due to additional differences in pronunciation and syntax, does not mean that they are mutually intelligible to native speakers. I struggle to keep the two languages separate. The differences cause my brain to stumble and kick back. I use Italian words when I am trying to speak Spanish and Spanish words when I am attempting to speak Italian. And then, switching back and forth between languages, I get confused with word endings and grammar. It is awkward and confusing and feels as though I am seeing double. But I have hopes that eventually my brain will be able to separate the two languages in the way that French and German are separate for me now.
What makes language learning particularly difficult is my own short attention span and the recurring discouragement, fatigue and frustration that arises in the process. But despite these obstacles, my initial motivation for learning each new language is ultimately what keeps me going. Part of my overall motivation to learn new languages is my strong desire to be a citizen of the world. But it is also passion that helps me get through the difficult moments: passion for a countryside and a history (Greek), passion for a culture (French), passion for the art of theater (German) or passion for visual art and the vocality and music of the language (Italian).
Generally, I am more interested in speaking a new language than in reading or writing it. I am drawn to social interaction and the relationships that can develop in real time. I am interested how speaking in a new idiom allows me to live within a different culture and be transformed by it. But the spoken word, as opposed to the written word, is notoriously insubstantial and evanescent. The sounds are invisible and yet they have a character and substance of their own. Learning to speak in a new idiom is not only about memorization, but also about giving up my own habitual methods of communication, timbres and even gestures. I have to let go of the sounds that I am accustomed to making, and I do this by allowing my tongue, mouth and vocal cords to move and dance in new ways. I learn by imitation and by singing the melodies of the language. Memorization is of course part of the process, but in order to speak I must accept that I will be misunderstood. I also have to be okay about going through a period where my brain melts down and I lose all sense of reality. Ultimately effective language learning arises from the intensity of emotion that happens while struggling to converse with others. This emotion is the ingredient that eventually leads to a successful grasp of the language.
As well as mental effort and focus, the process requires sensitivity, persuasiveness, vivacity and perseverance. It also asks for a comfort with ambiguity, miscommunication, improvisation and guessing. In other words, it requires me to be the best person that I can possibly be. And then, after all of the struggle, the embarrassment and the fumbling, something does happen. I begin to think and dream in the new language, and I am able to swim in the complexities and distinctiveness of a new culture. Something shifts.