Some days I adventure without taking a single physical step outdoors. I begin by navigating the choppy waters of conjugations, conjunctions, and clauses. Then I arrive at an unknown frontier, one where I have to hack through the jungle of new vocabulary and construct a sentence that bridges the abyss from my vernacular to this new terrain: Spanish. My thoughts in this land are halting and deliberate. My ideas are simple:
—El tiene muchos libros. He has many books.
—Yo hablo ingles. I speak English.
Progress is difficult, some days impossible, and I am left struggling on the shore, repeating quiero, quería, querré for hours. I keep at it, however, a bit everyday because this landscape of language fascinates me. I have the keys to further my study of words and structures. Someday these keys will allow me to dream in this tongue. They will lead me to climb the summits of Márquez’s thoughts, swim in the embrace of Neruda’s phrases, and walk upon the roads fashioned by Matute.
Learning a new language has made me more aware of the one I use. Complicated rules and compositions in English I mastered without knowing their intricacies crop up with new questions. Thoughts I have designed without ado break apart and turn out to have singular names — participial phrase, appositive, past imperfective — which prance around the page.
“I am now a foreigner in two places, discovering novel facets of speech I thought I understood.”
This is complicating and adding meaning to both spaces I inhabit. Acquiring a form of communication from the outside is not the same as growing up with it. There are rules I am memorizing, but nuances I will not be able to attain. I am building a foundation with boulders instead of bricks. Inevitably, some meanings are lost to me in the translation. Learning how to speak, how to live in the argot is not something I am going to manage soon, but the possibilities ahead are part of the experience.
I marvel too at the personality of the content I am asked to ingest. These are not expressions I hear my Spanish friends utter but they are the ones I must study for perplexing reasons. The sentences themselves are a mystery, an enticing door into the infinite imagination:
—Ella debe encontrar a su marido.
She must find her husband. Where did he go? How did she lose him?
—El perro come pasta pero no bebe leche.
The dog eats pasta, but does not drink milk. Curious type of dog. Would it also eat fries? Does it prefer wine with the pasta?
A thousand tales erupt from these elementary sayings and I wonder if this is what is also taught to native Spanish speakers. Does it make them born storytellers? Even the words they choose to teach me give the language a personality different from the flavor of English: libertad, revolución, violencia, pobreza. My gained vocabulary is forcing me to pay attention to content I do not consider in English, to a larger consciousness. This too adds color to my daily adventures.
Exploring this linguistic landscape is recreating me, forging a new existence. As I delve deeper into the uncharted, I also expand. When I started learning French in school we were all given new names. The moment I stepped past Madame Moreau’s threshold I became Monique.
“A new name, a new identity in order to acquire the new speech.”
Though I keep my name in Spanish class, I have that same feeling. Soy diferente, a hidden me revealed. The brisk shortness of Spanish sentences, the ability to obfuscate the single subject, the cadences of speech are becoming a part of the multilingual me. Without the full weight of its culture, I experience the lightness of the language’s being. It is an exhilarating relationship I am looking forward to deepening for years to come.
The best linguists are ones who begin at an early age. Research shows that bilingual brains function differently than monolingual ones. Learning more than one language restructures the neural networking system and enhances structural plasticity. This allows those who frequently speak more than one language to process and control the intake of sound quickly and easily in challenging or new environments.
How have you dealt with tackling a new language? What language has been the hardest for you to learn and why?