I’ve never been very good at learning foreign languages. Actually, I’ve been horrible at it. Terrible. Miserable. Awful. I even grew up with a mother who’s bilingual, yet never picked up more than a few words of her native tongue. Though nowadays it seems that kindergarteners are being taught Spanish or French, my option to take a foreign language didn’t become available until high school. Besides the standard Spanish, our second choice was Latin. That was it. No French. No German. No Mandarin. About 95% of our freshman class immediately signed up for Espanol. That made sense, right? You were bound to use Spanish at some point down the road, if even to place a proper order at Taco Bell… So of course I opted for Latin. Though I now have “carpe diem” forever seared into my brain, I certainly did not seize the opportunity to learn something that might have served me better in life.

Once I started traveling abroad, I relied on the kindness of strangers – and their English comprehension – to get by. I figured I would never go anywhere so remote that no one would speak English. If on the off chance they didn’t, I would break out plan B: speak loudly and gesticulate wildly. That usually did the trick. Once while in France, a woman came up to me and started to spew a firestorm of French. I knew immediately that she assumed I was a native. In some weird way, I took that as a compliment. However, I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying to me. Embarrassed, I replied, “Je suis desolee. Je ne comprends pas.” Translation: sorry, I don’t understand. This was all I retained after three years of French in college.

French 101 was about as close as I ever got to having a nervous breakdown. Upon my first day of class, I had naively assumed everyone was like me: a French newbie who wanted to learn about another language and culture. Wrong. So wrong. Every other student but me had taken French all throughout high school and wanted an easy A. It was hell, but I kept going. Each semester, I would sign up for the next class, and though I managed grade-wise, it was becoming a situation of diminishing returns. As the lessons became more and more advanced, I was forced to spend more and more time on my homework to ensure that it was perfect. It was the only way to balance my in-class participation grade: a big, fat F. The moment I stepped into that classroom, the cold sweats would begin. Hearing everyone around me speaking French was like listening to birds chirping or dogs howling. I hadn’t the slightest clue what anyone was saying. No matter how much I studied, it never sank in.

So I quit.

Years later, I still haven’t earned that bilingual title, though I’m not too broken up about the French thing. I have my own theory why la langue Francaise never took; it’s because I grew up in Chicago. French is a beautiful language. Chicagonese is not. Your mouth learns how to say words in an entirely different way. I should have tried German.

And though it’s been a few years since I’ve visited a foreign land, now more than ever I’m frustrated with my stunted language-learning brain. I may live in LA, but that doesn’t mean a plethora of languages other than English aren’t spoken here. You can drive through many a neighborhood where all the store signs and billboards are in Spanish or Korean or something else that doesn’t make any sense to me.

Plus, I hate when you realize someone is talking about you in another language and you’re helpless to do anything about it. As a child, it happened quite a bit when I was in the presence of my mother, aunt and baba (that’s grandma to you). Most of the time they would speak to each other in English, but then suddenly switch over as swiftly as birds changing flight. I would study their faces and could tell from their self-satisfied grins that they were discussing me. It was infuriating.

Not much has changed since then, except instead of family members dishing behind my back – err, to my face – it’s my students and their parents. It’s an unsettling feeling when you’re thanking them for a bottle of water and moments later they’re laughing about something I can’t understand. Was it something I said? Did I dribble down my chin? What is it?! But little do they know that I now have a secret weapon: my iPhone. Did you know there are dozens upon dozens of applications that can translate any language into English? C’est vrai.


Image: Kookkai_nak / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 Responses to “Language Barrier”

I can understand Spanish pretty well (talking is another thing), and when I first moved to LA I worked as a waitress (SHOCKER. An actress as a waitress, I know). The kitchen staff (all Spanish speaking) would talk about my…figure…every time I walked in for my food. I waited 6 months without saying a word. Then one day, I walked in and plainly in Spanish said “Thanks guys. But I would prefer you serve my meal on a plate, not your cha cha.” They looked like they wanted to throw up. And I loved it.

February 17th, 2012

That is the best story EVER. I wish I could have seen that awesomeness go down!

February 18th, 2012

Love it! Thank you apple for picking up where the school systems have failed us 😉

February 24th, 2012

Well… I’m trying. Not sure how much of an effect I’m having, but perhaps an A for effort? 😉

February 24th, 2012