‘Life is too short to learn German.’ — Oscar Wilde
A newspaper article I once read asked famous, successful people what else they wished they could do. Anyone who was not a singer said they wished they could sing, and many dreamed of being able to play a musical instrument. It was comforting that presidents, Olympian athletes and Nobel laureates all had at least one skill that had eluded them thus far. Now, if I could have a superpower, it would be to eat all I want and not get fat. I also wish I could sing. But in the realm of reasonably achievable desires, I would really love to master another language.
On my first day of school, I was surrounded by a sea of other five year olds but unable to communicate. My first language was Bengali, the only one spoken at home by my family. But here I was, freshly expatriated to Kuwait, attending an American school, and I didn’t understand a word.
I quickly learnt how to count in this foreign tongue, and figured that a good opening line would be to ask my fellow students how old they were. I went to my sister for help. She, in her distraction, told me to say, ‘how are you?’
The following day at school, I approached a girl with my new weapon of communication. ‘Fine,’ she answered. This was not one, two, three, four or five. I asked her repeatedly and she answered the same word again and again before getting bored and moving away. I came home in tears, hating not understanding or being understood.
A world of words
English quickly became my primary language, thanks to school, friends, siblings, the books I devoured and the films I soon became obsessed with. I also had to learn Arabic and French as part of the school curriculum. I can still somewhat read and write Arabic, though I don’t know what I’m reading or writing. Thirteen years of school and college French allow me to read haltingly and socially navigate my way through trips to Paris but once the locals start talking in that rapid fire way they do, I stand mute, smiling apologetically.
At age 20 I went to study in Italy and fell immediately in love with the language. It was, to me, everything that French was not: lyrical, melodic, and spoken with passion. Just hearing the babble made me euphoric.
I liked that the language was spoken with flamboyant gestures unique to the country, and that when reading it I instinctively knew where the emphasis was in each word (usually the second to last syllable: cucina, amore, felice). The Italian language, with its 24 letters (no ‘j’ and no ‘y’), is consistently written as it’s pronounced, unlike that dastardly French – and English for that matter – which trips one up.
Because it was something I chose to learn rather than having it forced on me, I was convinced that this was the language I would be able to master. Sad to say, it wasn’t. I watched an English film dubbed in Italian and came away confident that I had understood it all, only to discover from a fluent friend that I had missed the actual story entirely (I still think my version was better). I had Italian friends who spoke little to no English and we became champions at miming. The sole benefit was that I could sit in cafés to write and not be distracted by the surrounding chatter because it simply washed over me. I took Italian classes back in the US and again in London, totalling three years of study. Still no luck.
The spoken word
I am now living in a city where English is widely spoken but I’m unfamiliar with its national language. I shouldn’t be because I’ve worked here on and off for 21 years and lived here for two straight years as well. I envy friends and colleagues who were raised to fluently speak three languages (English, the national language and their regional one) and can switch between them seamlessly.
But it’s now gnawing at me, this inability to comprehend what I hear on the streets, in the shops, everywhere I go. At work, film scripts submitted to us come with the dialogue written using Roman letters but spelt phonetically in the local language. I have to rely on my kind office mate to layer translations into English for me onto each page. I need to watch films in theatres with my bestie doing a simultaneous translation into my ear, which must be deeply annoying for him but without it I am a blind man without a cane.
People assume that as I don’t speak the language, I must not know the society or the city. I can give better directions than most taxi drivers and I understand the nuances of etiquette particular to this place because I’ve observed it. But it feels irrelevant without being able to share their words.
I am reminded of author Jean Kwok who said in an interview that her wise, witty and eloquent mother, a Hong Kong emigrant, appeared simple to Americans because she didn’t speak English. I don’t just worry that I come across as clueless to the locals; I feel frustrated not being able to communicate.
I know that learning the language is more loaded than simply knowing useful phrases. I can study a society with intense scrutiny but the manner in which its language is used is the most revealing of all. Like the way a Japanese roommate in college never said the word ‘no’; she always responded in the affirmative at first instance, only to later give a polite apology.
In Bengali, no syllable is emphasised, and the language is spoken softly. While there is a word for ‘thank you’, it’s rarely used. Instead, people say things like, ‘you went through so much trouble for me’. It’s not just because Bengali is a poetic language where, given the chance, eight words are always preferred over one. This circuitous way of speaking is also the way people conduct business and social interactions; nobody comes right out and asks for a loan. You have to discuss the weather, the political situation, exchange updates on your children’s schools and careers before finally getting round to the matter at hand. Anything less is seen as abrupt and rude. It is a social dance; the words not spoken are often the loudest ones. Yet to partake in it requires knowing which words to say so you know which ones to omit.
Of fear and conquests
It should be as simple as learning this language, but there is a mental block. I bought language tapes to use on my commute to work but never listened to them. I subscribed to a website that promised to painlessly teach a foreign language, only to never revisit it. I have been carrying the name of a tutor on my to-do list for two months now but use the excuse of long hours at work to delay setting up even an initial meeting.
Perhaps it’s fear of failure. I’ve attempted to learn so many languages in my life yet have never succeeded with any besides English (when I speak Bengali now, I hear others’ peels of laughter follow my every sentence). There are those who can effortlessly pick up a new language but I am, maddeningly, not one of them.
Maybe it’s the aversion I have to study in general. While I love learning, the formal structure of school and classes make me feel trapped. Won’t it be dreary to study conjugations and memorise past perfect tenses?
I give myself pep talks: remember how I finally learnt to swim after four decades of flailing and nearly drowning in swimming pools around the world? A quick glance back at what I knew about film producing even two months ago makes me proud to be scaling new learning curves. I have travelled to strange countries on my own and have figured things out. I remind myself that I am not a fearful person.
My hesitation is becoming ridiculous. I know the longer I wait, the more paralysed I feel. Writing this post is a way for me to push myself onto the ledge. It’s time. Just jump.
And if it gets overwhelming, I can remind myself of the tattoo a writer friend has across his five fingers: one – word – at – a – time.
‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.’ — the Dalai Lama
A motley group of adults in a small Danish suburb decide to learn Italian, resulting in new entanglements as they mix outside the classes. The most light-hearted film made under the Dogme 95 principles, Italian for Beginners directed by Lone Scherfig, went on to win multiple international awards and is the most profitable film in Scandinavia of all time.
Music without words is perhaps the perfect communication. Yann Tiersen was working on his album L’Absente when film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet asked him to compose the soundtrack for Amélie, resulting in the two albums having similar-sounding tracks. Hearing the accordion on Le Jour d’avant go from pensive to hearty and back again makes me sway.
While board games like Scrabble obviously rely on word power knowledge, even miming games such as Charades require language knowledge to participate. Jon Minnis captured this perfectly in his student film Charade that went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1985: