Learning a Language: Woes of a Budding Frenchman
I still remember the first time I was truly immersed in a French conversation. It was a quaint dinner party with my girlfriend and a couple of her friends. I'd been learning French for about 5 months, and based on my interactions at grocery stores, shops, and the like, I thought I had a decent grasp on the language.
The friends arrived and we greeted each other in French. Promptly I was asked if English would be preferred. I said no, French is great; I could use the practice. Then the conversation began and rocked my brain.
I was amazed by the speed that these people were communicating. The blending of words. The subtleties of expression. It was incredibly difficult to follow along. Words/phrases that I'd studied popped up in the midst of the blur of language streaming into the open air, but my mind couldn't keep up.
I'd hear some words I recognized and think, "oh I know those! let me piece this together!", meanwhile everyone else would burst into laughter from the joke that sailed straight over my head into outer space like a rocket.
But even beyond listening, comprehension, and speaking, I realized that French follows a different cadence than English. When 2-3 people are locked into an engaging conversation, going back and forth, it's extremely difficult - as a novice - to stir in my opinion without disrupting the rhythm and stalling the flow. It's like there's a baby learning to speak at the table and he starts mumbling something, then everyone quiets down and focuses on the baby, "shhhh Tommy is trying to say something. What is it Tommy?"
Mon esprit est un melange des legumes....
In my native English - where I have complete command of my words (I think..) - it's simple to spot the entry points for my opinions into a deep conversation. I know how to move within the dance. It's something I've taken for granted in my knowledge of English; something that I picked up subconsciously from my developing years.
And in this pursuit of language learning, I've found the space to empathize with others who are trying to learn my native language. When people tell me that they "went at the store" or "rode in the train" or that last night at dinner they "took the shrimp scampi"... I get it. These are the funny expressions that arise in the process.
Now, I often find myself understanding the jist of what people are talking about, but still not grasping the subtleties of the flow. Direct translations don't often make sense in another language's context. Instead, I've been trying to approach learning the language like looking at a painting. I can experience the whole of the piece - and gain some meaning from it - but I couldn't possibly describe the techniques the painter used to form the oceans, the clouds, or the landscapes before me. I can listen to someone speak a few sentences, not understand a handful of words, but still attribute an overall meaning to what they said and respond in kind. Something is lost to the novice ear (or eye), but communication still occurs and a bond can be found between people.
With time and study, overall comprehension increases to the point where these intricacies of the language begin to feel natural and a deeper level of understanding is achieved. Still, I believe that most of the comaraderie that we attribute to language is actually felt within our bodies and perceptions of people. Words aren't vital to feeling a person's character and connecting with them.
When I traveled to Romania over Christmas break, that was a language adventure unlike any I'd had before. I'd say I had a 2 year old's understanding of Romanian when I stepped off the plane. That said, being immersed in a world of language I couldn't understand showed me how far communication extends beyond the reach of words. We're all in constant communication with each other, spreading the deeper resonations of our essence to the people around us like the warmth of a campfire.
Though it's true: cultural norms are a barrier to entry. It's hard to see through the lens of another person's normal at the first meeting and it's much easier to relate to someone who speaks the same mother tongue. But the longer we share a common space, the more we speak a common language. Beyond Romanian, French, or English. It's something else beyond the words. An understanding. Ultimately, you realize that when you strip it all away we're exactly the same. Just different strands of consciousness living out different representations of infinity. No matter what, we can bond over the shared experience of life. The beauty, the chaos, the magic, the mystery. And we don't necessarily need words to do it.
In Romania, I felt like I caught the tiniest glimpse of what human interaction was like before language; where a person told you everything you needed to know through their expressions, their body language, their actions, and their eyes. Sometimes our words and phrases put a cloud over this type of communication. How long before humans had a word for fire did we share the true meaning of its warmth through the visceral expressions of the body? I don't know, but I'm sure those ancient people already knew, and felt, what our words are now trying to say.