On Learning a Language

by Daniel Hartley

Learning a language is not just about memorising grammar and vocabulary (though without these, better to be a carpenter without tools and wood), and nor is it a matter of simply finding one’s way in an alien culture (though, again, without this, better to be an invading soldier). To learn a language is to learn to fail consistently. Fail again, fail better. It is not so much a tale of increasing glory as of diminishing despair. Perhaps the errors begin in the classroom, that patch of land where mistakes fall like seeds to the soil, cultivated, honed and raised by a teacher whose guiding principle must be forgiveness if ever her students’ wrongs are to grow into rights. But here, surrounded by others making the same errors, with no natives in sight (except the teacher herself, of course, but who doesn’t judge), failing is a gentle thing. It is only on being pitched into the streets of the country whose words feel like stones in the mouth that the soft – if stern – gaze of the teacher fades to a distant memory.

Learning a language in the country in which it is spoken is to undergo a series of humiliations. At home, unnoticed by everyone, your speech was invisible and inaudible because universal: you blended in. But here, say one word and the eyes will fix you instantly, single you out as the one who doesn’t belong. You will incite caution, interest, malice, kindness, humour, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – desire. Everywhere you go you will be surrounded by a thin veil of strangeness; no matter how hospitable your hosts, the inner precincts of their life together are out of bounds to you. You will remain forever outside the temple.

You are no longer in control. To learn a language you must die to yourself. Accept that you will make embarrassing mistakes, ones which sometimes shame you – but sweetly, nostalgically – to look back on. Each wrongly uttered verb, each false agreement of noun and adjective, every hilarious confusion of vocabulary – all of them accompanied by the gentle laughter of those who accept you, but to whom you do not belong – all of these are small, felicitous wounds. Nicks of the blade. And when you come to speak these words again, correctly this time, you will utter, not so much a word, as a memory. The language itself becomes a tissue of shamings and souvenirs, such that the past is emotionally built into the future you’re trying to speak. The words, like you, bear their scars and these you sense in all their ambivalence on the tongue.

Learning a language is like learning to speak for the second time: but this time we remember.

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