I’ve been in Lebanon this week, visiting extended family. This means a lot of things, and one of them is speaking Arabic. Or trying.
I suck at Arabic. I really do. My parents made casual attempts to teach my sister and I when we were young, which lead to my sister being practically fluent and me . . . not so much. I understand fine, particularly when the subject is familiar and my brain is in full-power mode. When it comes to speaking, however, I frequently find myself resorting to either English or (especially) silence. This leads to conversations like:
Relative: (To my sister): Wow you can speak Arabic so well!
(To me): Why not you?
Me: I try.
Relative: Your sister tries a little harder, no?
And while that conversation isn’t particularly fun, it is kind of true. I know that I probably could make a lot of Arabic come out of my mouth if I wasn’t so concerned with looking stupid by messing up or being unintelligible (Now I don’t think this is a particularly rational fear–I’ve seen plenty of people mess up at English and never would think of that as “stupid”–but it’s still a real and persistent one.) It is also completely possible that my Arabic is harder for them to understand than my English.
And of course, it’s just effortful and frustrating to operate in a language in which you can’t say as much as you think. I feel a lot less smart on the outside than on the inside and my sense of being an independently-functioning adult is pretty impaired. This is something that some people deal with on a daily basis, but I only experience it on occasion, so the obvious kind of slaps me in the face.
My internal monologue is something like:
Oooh I’m totally following what’s going on here. And I have a thing I want to say. I know most of those words. Um, but how do I translate “start-up?” Do I need to? I bet I’m conjugating stuff wrong too. Wait, I just missed about 5 steps in the conversation. Are they even still talking about the same thing? Wait, are they talking about politics now? Is this worth the brainpower to digest? I just want words in my head now! Okay, I’m lost. Have we really only been here for an hour? I wonder when someone’s going to bring out the chocolate . . .
I’ll be honest. In theory, I believe in the benefits of multilingualism and all, but in practice, I really hate learning languages. More specifically, I hate having to express myself in languages I’m bad at. I was super relieved to have finished my intermediate Spanish class, and therefore my language requirement, first semester.
People tell you to learn languages to learn about culture and become more “worldly.” They tell you to learn languages to travel. They tell you to learn languages because of the global economy. They tell you to learn languages because it’s good for your brain. They sometimes even tell you to learn languages as a super indirect method of improving your verbal SAT score, if you care about that sort of thing. Some of these are good reasons.
What they don’t tell you is that being bad at the language you are speaking is an important experience in itself. It teaches you a bit of what it’s like to feel voiceless, or at least like you have to put in way more effort to make your voice heard than everyone around you, who merely has to open their mouth. And it forces you to get past insecurities, to expose your voice and yourself in their imperfections, because it’s sometimes more important to be heard than it is to be exactly right.
That doesn’t mean I like it. But I’ll try.