I got into a fight with my boyfriend the other day. It was at one in the morning for me, and like many fights that I choose to engage in, it was about something stupid and trivial: something that shouldn’t have even been a fight. As I prepared my rebuttal for one of his articulate and convincing arguments, I thought I had a perfect point to make. But when I went to speak, nothing came out of my mouth except “I just can’t think of the right word!”
This was half-true. I had the right word, but I didn’t have the right language. I wanted to use a French word, one with a similar meaning in English when translated but that doesn’t carry the same connotation. I was frustrated. I felt stupid. And this happens more often than you’d think. And when it does, I always think back to an article I read during my junior year of high school.
The piece is written by an American who grew up speaking both English and Farsi. In it, the author is so eloquent about his experience speaking two languages and in describing how each language works to create its own world. Here’s one of my favorite passages, so you can get an idea of what he’s talking about:
Learning a second language is about perspective. Each language is a lens. If you were born wearing pink glasses and could never take them off or exchange them for another shade, you would assume the world is pink without even being aware of pinkness as a quality–pinkness as compared to what? In the same way, if you know only one language, it’s hard to be aware that you are looking through a lens: You think you are simply seeing the world as it is. Fluency in a second tongue gives you a chance to see through a different lens.
And, in my opinion, he’s 100% correct in saying this. I see this “two-lens” phenomena all the time while babysitting two French boys who are well-into the process of learning English. They often ask me the question, “How do you say ____ in French/English?” (Unfortunately the blank space is often an expletive). And sometimes, there just is no answer. I’ll usually look into space, rub my chin, say “hmmmm,” and finally say, “I just don’t think you can translate that.” This confuses them. When my high school students ask the question, I explain my non-answer by asking this question: have you ever used google translate before? Usually all of them nod, with sheepish and acknowledging smiles. I then say, “Have you ever typed in a sentence in English, and just received complete nonsense in return?” That answer, too, is usually yes. It’s the Google translate-effect: language learning is too often misconstrued to be the act of learning the literal translation of words. But often times, different languages use different words to express the same sentiments.
For example, one of my favorite expressions in French is “n’importe quoi.” Translated literally, it means “anything.” Translated more accurately it means “nonsense” (and in my opinion it can also mean “bullshit”) But in the French language, it’s a phrase you can use in a number of different scenarios. The kids I babysit yell it at each other all the time when they’re fighting. (Ie. “It’s your turn to take a shower first!” “N’importe quoi!”) My host mom might use it to express her frustration with a really long line in the grocery store. I use it when someone tells me an unbelievable/enraging story. In short, it’s for those moments in life when you not only disagree with something, but you also think it’s completely ridiculous that it even exists/happened in the first place. We just don’t have a word for it in English, which is why I’ll often throw it into my English conversations. To me, it doesn’t make sense to use any other word in that context.
I remember another time when my former host brother was explaining to me that he had taken a six-hour test that day. In English, it would be normal to say something like, “God, I’m so sorry.” So, in French I said, “Ohhh, I’m sorry.” He looked at me funny. “Why are you sorry?” he said. It was later I learned that in French, you don’t use the word sorry unless you are truly, deeply, sorry for something you have done. It made no sense for me to say it in the context of my host brother’s test-taking.
Aside from singular expressions and words, the idea that all nouns should have a gender still drives me insane. David Sedaris agrees with me on this one, and he’s far funnier than I am when he discusses it in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day: “Why refer to Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?” One thing that personally irks me, and sorry to be a bit crass, is that the word vagina is masculine. How does this make sense? Why would someone point to something that is quite possibly the most feminine word as and say “eh, yeah, that’s masculine.” I just don’t get it.
I decided to prod my French speaking students about how having a female table changes their view of the table. “Bah, it’s a table!” they said. Ok, well, that was unhelpful. But still, I wonder how seeing a vagina as masculine and a table as feminine has shaped their worlds differently than my gender-neutral language has shaped mine.
As frustrating as it can be sometimes to have moments when your brain mixes up two languages, I have found that learning French has really opened up another world for me in several senses. Yes, I can now communicate with French people: I can order a latte at Starbucks, I can chat at dinner, I can give directions; you get the point. In this sense, I can access French culture on a very fundamental level. But, I think more importantly, speaking another language has opened my brain up to another way of thinking–and has made me realize that my world was so shaped by the English language in the first place.
Of course, I probably would have come to this realization had I learned Spanish, or Chinese, or Arabic–it’s not something that is exclusively reserved for French speakers. This is why it makes me so sad to see so many schools in the U.S. cutting back on their language programs. As cliche as it sounds, I feel as if learning a language is key to not only communication, but to fundamental human understanding.
So thank you, to anyone who has ever helped me out along the way, for helping me to achieve my French-speaking dreams and unlocking another world for me in the process.