Language learning is a funny thing. In one moment, you’re feeling like a toddler who is receiving praise for getting halfway through your ABCs. Every new word seems like a struggle but every new word is something that you’re so proud of. What syllable do you put the accent on? Does that “c” actually sound like a “c”, or does it perhaps sound like an “s”? The tiniest of mistakes can make that sentence you are trying to form come out like complete pig Latin. THEN, something miraculous happens about six months into your language learning. You’ve hit a couple plateaus, you’ve thought about quitting a few times, but then you gain confidence. You start to understand part of conversations that are being had around you in cafes (and unfortunately you also start to understand when the conversations are about you — sigh). You speak to the taxi driver with your head held high instead of mumbling with your hand slightly over your mouth to muffle any obvious mistakes. You master that new language — or so you ever-so-foolishly think.
My family and I had been living in our new home in Southern Europe for six months. I hit that six-month mark with glowing confidence in the new language I was learning. No English for this chick here. I don’t care that you’re studying English at the university and that you’d really love to practice your English. Nope. This girl right here isn’t going to speak any English because, really, I need to show off my new language skills. That kind of confidence has a way of sneaking up on you in the not-so-best of ways when you least expect it.
For six months, I had avoided our neighbor downstairs. She was an elderly lady who did not speak any English at all. None. Not even “hello”. For our first few months, it was my daily goal to get my children and myself out the door before she could stop and try to speak because I would draw a blank every single time I saw her. One day, I left a little bundle of flowers on her rug with a short little note saying “hello” (really, this was just to make up for my habitual morning rudeness). The next day, she popped her head out of her door as I was making my way upstairs to our flat. She asked me if I had left the flowers and note on her rug. I knew it was time for me to break my silence. I had confidence. I had mastered this language after all, right?
I took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “Yes! Yes, that was me. I peed on your rug!” Her look of confusion (or fright, perhaps) did not match the expression that I had hoped for before I had spoken. You are supposed to be impressed, lady. I have mastered your language, don’t you know?
Okay, maybe she just didn’t understand me. How could she not understand that I was telling her I wrote a noted that was lying on her rug?? I’ll speak more slowly, and a little louder (because everyone knows that if someone doesn’t understand you the first time, you really just need to say the same thing — only louder).
“YES! Yes. That. Was. ME! I. PEED. on. your. rug!”
Ok, that was as loud and as slow as I could say it. I tried that a few more times and ended up having that sweet little elderly neighbor continue to look at me with the most horrified expression on her face. The conversation ended with her smiling politely, rubbing my cheek gently, and telling me that I was a pretty girl. I decided that she was just hard of hearing. Bless her heart, she just couldn’t hear me. Oh well…
My husband had been in the stairwell, just one floor above us. “Well, I finally tried to talk to our neighbor. I tried telling her that I was the one who left the flowers and wrote the note that was on her rug. Bless her heart, she just couldn’t hear me. I don’t think she hears well. I said it as loudly and as slowly as I could. Poor thing. But, she does think I’m pretty!”
Being the gentleman that he is, he didn’t tell me that he ad been eavesdropping the entire time. “OK, so tell me exactly what you told her one more time,” he requested. So, I told him my exact words.
He dropped his head, sighed a little sigh, and informed me that I had just told her (numerous times…numerous slow and painful times) that I had peed on her rug.
Remember that confidence that I was feeling? Remember that “mastery” level that I had achieved? That was the day that I like to call “the day I learned a little about pride”. The day I learned about pride and the day that I learned I had not quite “mastered” this language. It was also the day I learned that not every compliment is a compliment. Apparently, “you’re so pretty” is the Southern European version of a sweet, Southern “bless your heart”.
Almost three years in, I can confidently say that I have finally become a master–I’ve become a master of how to be a student. How to study. How to not take myself quite-so-seriously. More importantly, how to not get my feelings hurt when, no matter how great I speak my new language, my three children will ALWAYS speak it better than I do.
Can you recall a time or two when you were reminded that you are most certainly still a learner of language in culture? Isn’t the taste of humble pie bittersweet? Feel free to share some of those humbling moments in the comments section. You’re in good company.