We find experiences of being surrounded by an unfamiliar language unnerving. It is perfectly natural to wish we could all understand each other, and I believe there is a definite limit to the number of foreign languages it is useful to have in a particular area. I also believe there is an objective, definable, practical benefit to being fluent in more than one language.
I had a nightmare the other night: I went home and couldn’t speak Russian. Part of my dream was in Russian, which should make me feel more encouraged. It’s also not the first time I’ve dreamed in Russian, which was actually about a month after I arrived, and also involved a lot of German. But really, none of this effaces the crushing discouragement I have been feeling lately. I’m just so damn frustrated.
For years, people have been telling me that once you’re fully immersed in a language, you pick it up so fast! these are people who, more often than not, have either never learned a foreign language, or are native speakers of the language I am trying to learn. This is probably the most widespread and counterproductive piece of advice language students are given, because nothing provides a greater disincentive to study than the thought that it won’t matter once I’m fully immersed! Furthermore, this attitude demeans the amount of hard work foreign language students have to push themselves through once they’re in their target country. Do you know that feeling you get when you’ve been studying for so long that your brain muscles have worn out? That’s what I feel like almost every day. It’s exhausting.
Compounded to this is a very difficult truth: complete immersion is growing harder to achieve thanks to the Internet. Maybe the mythical full immersion experience might happen to me, if only I could force myself to give up my Internet connection. Only, that thought terrifies me. If I were at home, it would not be such a big deal. Even in Edinburgh, I would hardly be bothered. But I’m not sure I’m desperate enough to cut myself off from all but intermittent contact with my family and friends back home (and yes, probably an unhelpful number of terribly interesting blogs). But more importantly, the Internet is by greatest study tool. I use it to find vocabulary words, build my flash card decks, and post questions and sample texts to Russian language forums. I’ve taken to banning myself from English Wikipedia, but it’s just too hard to make a rule where I can only access the Russian section of the Internet, when half of it is in English (and at my literal fingertips!).
But wait! There’s more! Say I succeed at the end of my eight months abroad and go home decently able to speak Russian. A hypothetical being asks me: “so do you speak Russian?” I say, “yes, I do! I have attained x-level fluency.” The response? “Well, of course! Full immersion will do that for you! But of course, there’s nothing like being a native speaker.”
Perhaps this hypothetical being is only a figment of my imagination. I admit, I spend far too much time being angry with the arguments put forth by hypothetical beings. And yet, I have this sinking feeling that no matter now hard I work, the result will be treated with a mixture of superstition and derision. Any artist will understand the first part of what I am talking about: you haven’t put an incredible amount of time and dedication into honing your craft, only to be told you are lucky to be so talented (as if luck had anything to do with your hours of hard work?). I believe in talents. I believe some people are gifted with an advantage in certain skills. I am beginning to believe I do not have a talent for language learning. But there does not exist a talent which allows one to absorb a language by osmosis the way we did when we were children (unless you want to count prodigies, and I suspect they have to put up with a lot of myths as well).
As to the latter, it’s true: I will probably never be mistaken for a native speaker in any language save English. I think it is possible to attain that level of proficiency, but I have no idea how many hours of work it would take. And yet, I have come to value native speakers far less these past few years. Except in the realm of Literature, I do not believe a native speaker holds much, if any, advantage over a highly-skilled L2 speaker. Even in teaching, were the native speakers have the greatest advantage, they sometimes struggle to explain their own language. Maybe I just wish more people had a better idea of what it means to be “fluent” in a language. I had a hard time trying to decide if I ever became fluent in German. Now I know the answer is a resounding “no”. I went to Germany under the false notion that I would pick up German just by being in Germany, and while I still know enough German to communicate, I doubt I got beyond an intermediate level.
In America, and throughout much of the English speaking world, I believe we have a very backward approach to foreign languages. It bothers me, but I understand it. We use the chimera of language immersion as a scapegoat to excuse our poor foreign language skills. Then we dismiss the utility of learning a foreign language in the first place by exalting native speakers. Finally, most of us are comfortable in our monolingualism because so much of the rest of the world is eager to learn English, and we eagerly await the day when there will be one universal language anyway.
So many of us are monolingual these days, we are comfortable thinking it’s a good thing. And yet, monolingualism is far from the historical norm, at least in Europe. Among the educated classes, anyone who was not French learned French, as well as at least Latin. Lower classes, particularly those around the Mediterranean, had frequent contact with multiple languages, as there was not always a common tongue even from one village to the next. To this day, Switzerland has three official languages.
Before I left home this summer, one of my brothers asked me what I would think if there were only one universal language, and all others were extinct. I said I would find it very sad—as a student of both history and languages, I am inclined to find any language a curiosity, if only in a historical context. After thinking about it some more, I have found a more complete answer. Bilingualism has advantages which extend beyond the ability to communicate in two languages. We may think more rationally in non-native languages. I remember learning in my first year linguistics course that bilingual children move past the egocentric stage of cognitive development more quickly than monolingual children. Yet, in America, we are afraid of the growing presence of Spanish in our daily lives.
I understand that fear. I face it constantly. It is the fear that somehow, through our inability to communicate, we are inadequate. We are stupid. No wonder three-year-olds get so frustrated. But for me, my fear extends beyond this. I am afraid I will fail. I am afraid that it will be my fault. I am afraid that I will graduate with a degree no one values, not even myself, because I will lack the skill to put it to use. I am afraid of being locked out of a part of the world, and of only being able to communicate with it by means of an intermediary.
And yet, there is hope. I took a test today. It was an online test, and very informal, but the results were encouraging. It estimates that according to this chart, I am at ТРКИ-2. The description is about right, but I don’t know how it compares to this chart, which is the one I have been using as a reference for my own improvement (I estimate myself to be between levels 1 and 2, with a goal by graduation of level 3, and naturally a lifetime goal of level 4). Also, I am learning one of the hardest languages in the world. Seriously, I look back on the days of German and French with a certain nostalgia. If only I could go back to learning a language with only four cases, or only two genders! And yes, there is that final, soaring hope that crazy people like this guy are right, and that once I master Russian I will be able to move on to master other languages as well.
Because don’t what to stop with Russian, but to continue with French, German, and Spanish as well. Because when my mind is closed up in the tiny space of a shrunken vocabulary, there is nothing more invigorating than when that door clicks open and my thoughts take wing in forms I never before had the ability to imagine.