In Emily Hayman's recent professor op-ed, she explored the topic of language-learning as play. I completely agree with her assessment of the wonders of tasting the world with variegated words and sounds, and the ways in which this can lead to deeper personal connections with speakers of various languages.
Another side to language-learning, though, is the possibility to view your first language with a renewed appreciation for its nuts and bolts, the architecture which we so often take for granted. When you learn another language, you begin to think about its roots—the ways in which even individual words and expressions are put together to describe a reality that is in some sense beyond the reach of words.
For example, one of my favorite phrases that I've learned while studying Persian is the way to say “I miss you,” which directly translates to “My heart grows tight for you.” This is extremely poetic—it describes an emotion that is powerful and felt physically, where the English version simply remarks upon an absence. Since learning this phrase in Persian, I have realized how often the physical sensation of tightness in the chest is associated with the emotion of missing someone or something, and I have felt what Hayman describes as the broadening of my perspective, becoming aware of a reality that I previously was unable to conceive of without another lens through which to view it.
In struggling to learn a new language, I have also rekindled my appreciation for the beauty of English. I have begun to see the poetry in everyday phrases and words in the same way that I immediately felt the poetry of the Persian “I miss you.” When you spend so much time connecting terms and breaking down words like equations, you begin to take heed of every patchwork word and phrase in your own language. There are a million examples, but since I'm on the subject of hearts, take a glance at the English phrases associated with love: “sweetheart,” “heavy heart,” “disheartened,” “falling in love.” “Falling in love” is a clichéd phrase, but it is poetically astonishing, if you think about it as a unique linguistic compilation. What feels so natural to say in English is in fact a radical poetic image.
Emotional language is inherently connected to cliché—emotions are where we most often confront our verbal limitations. As someone who loves words, and who uses them, perhaps excessively, to express care, I have learned what so many have learned before me: Less is more. I often still feel that all my thoughts, feelings, and emotions must be stated, outlined with the best vocabulary possible, to carry with them the full force of meaning necessary to forge connections and create some sense out of chaos. But sometimes every word in the English dictionary and in every language that has ever existed is, well, inadequate. And sometimes the simplest, most overused phrases are all that exist to somehow build a bridge between your center and that of another person.
There is a profound resonance we often overlook in using a cliché that has been the poetic work of centuries past. We overlook the clichés of our own language, but are in awe of those of other languages, which seem so poetic and original. Phrases that we may toss off should be viewed with a renewed appreciation for their construction. Even the most common, accepted expressions of our native language can be seen as bits and pieces of sound and meaning that are cobbled together—the mosaic of meaning made by human fumblings toward some contained, identifiable truth.
Emily Neil is a Barnard senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. She is a former Spectator theater associate.