Whenever I played that game where you have to choose a superpower (you know the one, it came before the ‘what you would do with a lottery win’ game), I was always torn between the ability to speak and understand any language (living or dead), and flight. I would perform mental acrobatics in an attempt to merge the two into ‘one superpower’, because just imagine the result: you could go anywhere you liked in the entire world, on a whim or operation, and then talk, read, understand, enter into whichever culture you had landed in. New friendship possibilities would exist, and poor translations become a thing of the past. Perhaps I would finally enjoy The Master and Margarita. Certainly there would still be aspects of culture shock and adaptation that would need to be overcome, but you would have a magical window into the worlds of your interlocutors.
I suppose this would be a combination of Marvel’s Cypher, and Cipher – but less passive. Cypher just understands ‘intuitively’, whereas I wanted/want to be able to think in each new language (is he named Douglas as a nod to Douglas Adams and bable fish?) a la Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, although she earns each language through birthday gifts of wishes. Wishes that are created through the hard work and suffering of her guardian chimera Brimstone.
I suppose that (minus the magic, the existence of parallel universes, wishes created by pain and teeth, and chimera locked in an existential battle to the death with fallen angels) this is closer to my experience of language learning than that of being born with a superpower.
It has been hard work, at times akin to pulling teeth; rife with misunderstandings and embarrassing situations. Sometimes I have only realised they were misunderstandings years later, once I learnt the ‘other’ meaning of a word or sentence, or had a more fluent conversation with a person involved, or read a book, or watched a news report or documentary. Realisation dawns and I grimace and then store the ‘new’ understanding in my mind and (depending on the severity and repercussions) laugh or vow never to be in that situation again…until I inevitably fall once more for some linguistic trap. I suppose like anything worth doing or knowing, language learning for me has been a series of starts, falls, injuries, and then recovery and more base mileage.
Just like the athleticism conjured in the previous analogy, language learning has also been incredibly satisfying. Before and after those falls and on the back of all the mileage have come wonderful moments of clarity and belonging. The first time I made a joke that was a play on words in Spanish, and had the entire table falling over laughing (but not AT me), has been written on my skin forever. Being asked whether I am from Vicenza or Colombia made me feel part of something special. Certain words conjure up places and memories or taste good in the mouth: Uggioso – linked forever to an afternoon in northern Italy, stood on a balcony with the scent of coffee bubbling from the stove top mocha seeping through the curtains. A break in class, and my student’s mother commented on the weather. Such a specific and perfect word for that moment. A tiny package of language and memory.
I recently passed my C2 exams (pdf) for Spanish. It was a personal rather than a professional challenge, but it was extremely satisfying nonetheless. Professionally that marks the culmination of years of study and use, but there is still so much to learn. I wish that I had known about these qualifications when I left Italy, as I now consider ‘brushing up’ my Italian, as well as how to keep using Spanish, and learn Russian.
Looking backwards, I can categorise most periods of my life into languages, interspersed with dabbles in others, or vague plans. I am nowhere near being a linguist or professional learner of language, but it has been a most enjoyable journey so far, and one that I would highly recommend.