Sunday, February 7, 2016

This Is My Brain on Foreign Languages

I am once again trying to learn a new language, which makes my brain hurt. I have never been good at this. I took a full year of beginning Spanish four separate times in my life and I still can’t order enchiladas in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant. To be fair, I eventually did manage to communicate marginally in Spanish the last time I took the classes because I had the opportunity to use the language in my daily life. I worked at Head Start at the time, where nearly half the staff spoke Spanish, and I practiced with them. But when I left Head Start to work from home as a grant writer, the precious little bit of the language I had managed to embed in my brain took the next flight to Bolivia.

This time around I’m trying to learn American Sign Language (ASL), since my hearing is so lousy. Ron is taking the class with me so we can communicate in environments where I can’t hear (such as while I’m running the blender, so I can sign “I’m making a smoothie”) and in general for future use if I lose more hearing. My husband apparently has a more energetic left brain than I do (left brain usually controls foreign language learning) because he remembers the signs for more words than I do. When we came home from our first class, he already knew how to say “I have to go to the toilet” and I didn’t. If I don’t catch up quickly, I will be both deaf and intermittently incontinent. I thought the universal sign for “I have to go to the bathroom” was the I-need-to-pee dance. Not.

My first foray into learning a foreign language occurred when I was six years old and I started Hebrew School. Some of my peers eventually took the AP Hebrew Language Exam in their senior year in high school, but I didn’t have a prayer with this language, and that’s ironic because all the prayers in the prayer book at my synagogue were in Hebrew. I learned to read the prayers, but I couldn’t figure out what they meant. I trust I was praying for world peace all those years and not a pink Cadillac. One root in the Hebrew language can branch into a dozen different words. I couldn’t keep them all straight. The root letters for the word “hear” in Hebrew might also mean spirit, listen, guard, gatepost, deaf as a gatepost, pipe wrench, and please pass the hummus. This is hypothetical. I don’t know how to say “hear” in Hebrew or what the root letters are for this word. I do know how to make hummus. Is anyone else hungry for falafel?

I have often blamed my foreign language learning impairment on the fact that I started learning French in third grade, and that trying to learn both French and Hebrew at such a tender young age ruined my left brain for life. I swiftly became proficient at mixing up words across the languages and speaking Hebrench in both classes. If I did manage a complete sentence all in one language, it usually came out meaning something like “May I eat your boots?” “Please wash my cat,” or “I want to invite you to have a hysterectomy.”

The only language I actually began to master (briefly) was French, which I no longer remember. I studied French steadily for about ten years, continuing with it long after I gave up on Hebrew. By the time I traveled to Paris in 1973, I could navigate passably with my limited language skills. You would think that Paris would be the worst place for a linguistically impaired American to spread her wings, since Parisians are notoriously rude and chauvinistic about their language. Interestingly, to the contrary, most of the Parisians I met were kind and helpful. Many of them humored me and spoke slowly to help me learn. Perhaps they appreciated my earnest desire to improve, but it’s more likely that they simply thought I was hilarious. The biggest obstacle for me in perfecting my French was that I am hopeless at conjugation so even though I had an impressive vocabulary, I could only speak in the present tense. My French cousin, who was a language teacher, nearly cracked a rib laughing when I told her smoothly, “I am an asshole at the Palais Garnier,” which is the French Opera House. (I am not making this up.) The asshole at the opera statement resulted mainly from my abysmal pronunciation. I was trying to tell my cousin about something that happened while I was in the que at the Opera waiting to buy a ticket, and the French word for que is similar to the French word for asshole. Go figure. I don’t even like opera, and I believe it can make an asshole out of anyone if they listen to too much of the stuff.

When I was studying for my master’s degree in English, I was required to complete two foreign language requirements. For one of them, I took a full year of beginning Spanish. For the other I took Old English, which counted as a foreign language in my department. I thought Old English would be vaguely recognizable to me. I had read Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, and I was pretty good at understanding Shakespeare. So why not Old English? I’ll tell you why not. Old English is a cross between German on an extra-rich vowel diet and Norwegian as spoken by a sailor with a mouthful of mutton. Using my Beowulf-English Dictionary, I got up at dawn three days a week and spent several hours wrestling with Grendel. I never, and I mean never, turned up in class with a viable translation. But I was the most popular student in the class. My classmates waited in high anticipation for my turn to translate a few lines. I described the Geats swimming the English Channel wearing full armor and carrying spears. In my translations, Beowulf solicited sex from all his most ferocious warriors, Grendel crunched the bones of oak trees and drank mead from the shell of a giant beetle (possibly a 1964 VW), and the Geats’ dining hall burned down in a freak outhouse accident involving barley gas, a tiki torch, and a failure to bring a fire extinguisher to an illegal pig roast.

So now, after years of traumatic incidents involving violence against foreign language acquisition, I am back at it again, trying to communicate using someone else’s idea of how to shape the world into words. ASL is particularly unusual because it’s an entirely visual language pronounced using the fingers, hands, face, and arms. This means that I am not only in danger of miscommunicating, but I may also break my wrist or sprain my cheek giving it a try. I hope I don’t poke someone’s eye out in class trying to offer them a tangerine, or break a lighting fixture while attempting to say that a plane flew overhead. I am a serious liability in a visual language learning class, I’m afraid. I could potentially bring the house down, which is similar to being an asshole at the Palais Garnier. But I am determined to persevere. Scientific research confirms that learning a new language increases the size of one’s brain. I’m all in. After a semester of ASL, I hope to be able to wear a bigger hat.

This is the inside of the Palais Garnier (where I was not an asshole).

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