Learning a language is an abstract journey I’ve taken more than once and with varying degrees of success.
For instance, out of politeness, and to show that not all English people expect everyone to understand them, I learnt a few phrases in Norwegian before leaving for the northern lights. My efforts were rewarded with a blank stare, a confused request to repeat what I just said and a tolerant and perfectly worded reply in English.
Still, a cursory glance through a phrase book isn’t enough to embrace an entire culture or learn to manipulate your lips and tongue in a completely different way, so my embryonic Norwegian never ventured outside the womb. All I have left is said phrases that pop up loudly and unexpectedly on my ipod playlist, usually immediately after a calm and introspective classical piece for maximum shock effect.
Ironically, my Japanese went far enough to leave the cradle and grab on to the baby walker, despite its insane difficulty. I pored over the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets, learnt how to introduce myself, form simple sentences and, crucially, direct people to the train station, but even with night classes at university my other work took priority, and without fluent or native speakers to practise or at least amuse with my attempts at their language, it fell by the wayside like toys at bed time.
My French and Italian, on the other hand, were the success stories. These non-identical twins tugged on both of my arms at high school and university but only really shed their nappies once I went to live in their respective countries. The way we were taught in school was negligible; we barely had a grasp of our own grammar, so being asked to “conjugate” sounded like a grown-up word for something kinky, and half of the children in my class had chosen languages to avoid the heavier practical subjects, meaning it was a miracle we were able to learn anything in the allotted time. That said, having a teacher who was a native speaker made up for some of these shortcomings, especially as you could pick up uttered phrases and even curse words when they thought no one was listening. Happily, I later discovered the power of immersion.
Living in both France and Italy for a time forced my brain to accept the information clamouring to get inside. After a brief period of clinging to English friends I found myself a French boyfriend in Montpellier, and while in Turin I lived with three Italians who spoke no English. Gradually I noticed that the French or Italian word would emerge from the grey matter before the English one, and as my understanding grew, reading or listening to conversations felt like reading a sign post through thinning fog.
Of course, while my languages were learning to dress and feed themselves, they sometimes put shoes on the wrong feet or dropped the spoon entirely. A couple of classics were asking for toilet instead of tap water in a Florentian restaurant, and informing one of the many nosy men at the tram stop that I had been learning Italian since I was seven bum-holes old.
But, just as adults can forget themselves in front of children, it worked the other way too and I caught out just as many native speakers unaware of my developing skills. A particularly arrogant bouncer outside a Turin bar could have sold his face for retirement when I barked back at him in shaky Italian. Somewhat less amusing was my sudden propensity to overhear groups of young French men discussing their intimate exploits of the night before whenever I was on the London Underground or waiting for a bus.
Regardless, when you feel a slightly different area of your brain working, hear your mouth making these beautiful new sounds and understand enough of the response to stay afloat, mastering a language is like finally swimming out into the open ocean without any arm bands. At the same time, languages can be as unpredictable as the waves, and like any sensible parent you need to adapt. Due to my current job, both of mine are now maladjusted teenagers who never go out; since I only use them in a customer service context, I’ve forgotten how to hold a normal conversation, but I can tell you how to delete your cookies and update your browser, Madame.
Put simply, each language you own needs love and attention to stay healthy, like a growing child, and if you persevere, it pays dividends as well as making you feel like the world’s best spy in many a social situation. You’re also more likely to be the one giving the backchat.