A smart person once told me that every dissertation is a sort of autobiography, and here’s mine: I am atoning for having grown up monolingual. Due to the usual reasons—first-generation grandparents who were all too eager to bury their Italian and Yiddish under American English—I didn’t have the good fortune of automatically having a complete familiarity with another language. To my younger self, knowing another language seemed like having access to a secret code, something that could unlock the thoughts and feelings that were going on inside another person’s head, a magic key to the unbridgeable, seemingly miraculous fact that other people think differently.
I was determined to make up for this iniquity. But here’s what I found out: Learning a language is hard. What they don’t tell you in Intermediate German I is that when you wake up in Freiburg, jet-lagged and woozy, to find your eight German roommates sitting around the kitchen table, it is almost physically painful to muster up a convincing “Morgen!” and ask if you can make some toast. Even as you become more adept and comfortable in a language, there are still days when the words feel slippery and unreachable, when it feels like you are doomed to the undesired fate of American monolingualism.
Still, it does get better, and the small triumphs of communication that we often take for granted in our mother tongue come to seem like miracles of interpersonal connection in a foreign language. All of a sudden, understanding a pun, rap lyric, or late-night conversation about the vicissitudes of Love Actually (for god’s sake, Laura Linney, turn off your phone!) represents a symbolic, redemptive space in which people and cultures really meet, where we surrender our own terms and slip into someone else’s linguistic shoes.
This may sound like an advertisement for study abroad (and, in part, it is), but I actually want to make the case not just for linguistic immersion and mastery, but also for the delight and wonder of messing around amateurishly in languages where you don’t belong. I had the leisure to learn German pretty well, but I’ve spent much more time picking up bits and pieces of a variety of other tongues, with ranging proficiency. Would I love to learn these languages with native fluency? Of course! But life is short, and sometimes the best solution is just to play.
Indeed, a few words or phrases in another language can unlock another world. It’s a real-life “abracadabra”: All of sudden, the people you encounter seem a little bit more open, approachable, friendly. A few numbers and a strong “yes” or “no” (and “thank you”) is enough to bargain in any market. A bit more vocab will serve to strike up a conversation with a hotel concierge or taxi driver (my favorite captive audience). With world enough and time, it would be wonderful to meet these local interlocutors with full fluency, but even a few words are enough to draw us closer to each other, to erode the barrier between different minds. There are no downsides as long as you’re willing to laugh at an occasional malapropism or to eat up when you accidentally order “andouillette” (offal sausage) with the assumption that it’s just a diminutive version of New Orleans’ “andouille.” And the benefits are manifold: new camaraderies and friendships, an increasingly wide perspective on the world, and most of all, an intimate view of exactly how words work to bring us together.
As I’ve come to pick up more foreign fragments and (semi-)fluencies, I’ve found that even more rewarding than my own linguistic breakthroughs is the realization that I’m surrounded by people who possess different, often fuller acquaintances with the many languages of which I have little or (more likely) no knowledge. This is particularly true at Columbia, where something like 20 percent of the student population is international, many have grown up in multilingual homes, and still more are (like me) striving to shed their American monolingualism once and for all. I’ll never be able to speak every language, but the next best thing is to surround myself with people whose languages offer them perspectives and ideas that I might never encounter in my own, small corner of the linguistic world.
I’ll end, then, with one of the most gratifying experiences of my short career in teaching, and a perfect indication, in my mind, of the sort of intellectual crescendo to be found in an encounter between tongues. On the final day of Literature Humanities in 2013, we read “The Waste Land,” and, like a conductor in a symphony, I pointed to different students in the classroom to read aloud the poem’s final, multilingual explosion:
A, whose mom is Italian: “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina”
B, who studied Latin in high school: “Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow”
C, who is considering a French minor: “Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie”
D, American: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
E, who grew up in London: “Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.”
F, who is taking Beginner Sanskrit: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih”
As I gestured around the room, I thought, this is why I teach, this is why I love languages. Together, in “these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” our voices bring to life the vibrant twists and turns of thought to be found between lines and between languages.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is a Literature Humanities instructor. After Office Hours runs every Friday.
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