Coming from Singapore, the world’s fascination with bi- or multilingual people seems exaggerated to most of us. We all speak at least two of Singapore’s four national languages in varying degrees of fluency. My Malay is a solid 20 per cent at best – shameful for a language I spent a decade muddling my way through. Traumatic memories of my Malay teacher calling me otak udang (prawn brain) haunt me still.
But still, across the border and in the absence of English, I’d manage to find my way around just fine. Beyond the ability to at least get by in the countries where your second language is spoken, the challenge of learning a new language is a hell of a ride, and one that opens more doors than I once believed.
My attempts to learn Chinese in Beijing, Russian in Moscow, and French just because, continue to demonstrate that this challenge will often make you question your decision to even try. New languages can be lots of fun. New languages can also make you pull your hair out and/or give up altogether.
The Struggle Is Real
For those lacking in this area, tonal languages can be incredibly difficult. Wrapping your head around a word that can be pronounced so many different ways – four in Mandarin, but up to eight in other tonal languages – and have a different meaning for each can feel impossible.
Opportunities for miscommunication are endless. Sometimes it ends in fun, sometimes in complete chaos.
For those of us who have never learnt a different grammatical structure, complex declensions, cases, and conjugations, and learning a new language can be downright infuriating, and in the case of some of us (not me, obviously…) it can leave you in tears. Is a chair male or female? How do we know, and who gets to decide that, anyway? Did the first chair in France have a particularly curvy build?
With Russian, at least, you can tell masculine and feminine nouns based on the word endings. Words that end with ‘a’ are feminine, those that end with ‘o’ are neutral, and those that end with a consonant are usually male. Except in the case of ‘papa’ – obviously masculine, or ‘muzhchina’, which despite its feminine ending means ‘man’.
Some words that you could say quite simply in English are anything but simple in another language. In Russian, there are a dozen different ways to say ‘go’. Did you walk? Were you in a car, or a plane? Did you return? If we’re not sure, can we assume that you went with the intention of returning? Does it really matter? What if you changed your mind? Learn different words for all those plans, plus how to change them depending on who (Yourself? She? They?) was making the journey. More than six months in, I still try and avoid talking about my (or yours, or his, or theirs) comings and goings altogether.
Tricky grammar aside, some coinciding vocabulary at times appears like the language gods are just out for a bit of a laugh. The word ‘magazine’ (as in fashion magazine) means the same thing in English as it does in French. But ‘magazine’ means ‘shop’ in Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian and Ukrainian, to name a few linguistic exceptions.
In most of those languages, the word for ‘magazine’ is ‘journal’ – meanwhile in French, the world ‘journal’ means ‘newspaper’, and ‘newspaper’ translates to ‘gazette’ in other Slavic languages. I know. It’s confusing. The puzzle (like the kind you might find in a ‘journal’, which you can buy at the ‘magazine’) deepens still.
Just as you think you’re getting the hang of it, your foreign language skills are good enough for you to get a bit cocky. Chattering away with your quickly expanding vocabulary, your new local friends think your skills are better than they really are. Outside your usual conversations, you’re stuck. For example, and for reasons I’d rather not get into, I happen to know how to say, “I’ve lost my passport and I need to make a police report immediately, please,” in slightly flustered Russian. Ask me how to ask for another glass of water and I’m back to hand signals and half-English requests.
Languages can be the most frustrating thing in the world – whether someone assumes you’re better than you are and you feel like a fool, or when someone explains something really basic to you… and you feel like a fool. The road to a new language is a long, tedious, and incredibly humbling one.
Pain Leads To Pleasure
And then one day, you’re seated in a taxi in Beijing and your driver swears humorously. You laugh.
“You know Chinese?!” he asks excitedly. “Of course,” you proudly reply. “Hǎo hào xuéxí, tiāntiān xiàngshàng!” you say – ‘study hard, improve every day’. Because maybe your Chinese isn’t great, but you understand enough to know what makes the people around you smile.
Maybe one day you pick up a magazine (or a journal – or a magazine – at the shop?) and you know that an article is about a recent terrorist attack in London, or you hear the news and you roll your eyes with everyone else around you because American politicians are up to something again. Or it could be something as simple as asking for the time, giving someone else directions, or having a conversation on the phone. The first phone conversation is always a big one – a new language is so much harder to understand with no body language or visual cues.
A week ago I was at a phone repair shop and the friendly repairman said he’d give me a call when my phone was ready. “Actually, could you text me?” I asked. “My Russian isn’t very good – reading a text will be easier.”
“Of course not,” he impatiently brushed me off. “You speak the language just fine. I’ll call you.”
It really is the little things; this man will likely never know that after months of feeling like I was banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall, this casual dismissal of my lacking confidence made my day – and provided enough confidence to keep me going for another few months.