The Starting Block
I am at a loss for words. I am at a loss for words in three languages. There are experiences in life we know we shall encounter and there are those that take us by complete surprise. I have heard friends describe what it was to move to the US and be surrounded by only English, or to move to Spain or Argentina or Uganda and describe what it is to have to learn Spanish or Swahili — but I have never heard anyone describe the actual experience of learning a new language in a new country, not the day-to-day realities of not only learning a new language, but functioning in that language and the slow process by which a language is learned. David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” offered anecdotes on learning French, but he never referenced the mental fugues that take place — the complete lack of comprehension one moment followed by utter clarity and competence the next. As I find myself now in a state of language acquisition through immersion, I have been keeping notes — every week gives birth to something new — and the mental states, the alterations between states — between levels of comprehension and confusion are fascinating, so I catalogue them, note them, document their appearance and frequency the way an anthropologist collects data in the field.
Language acquisition through immersion is such an intensive method of learning that it touches every aspect of one’s life. The mental energy exerted, every day for longer and longer periods of time, the process of mental translation, recalling vocabulary, grammar, verb conjugations — is incalculable. At the beginning it is slow. It is clumsy. A new language does not come automatically to mind — the sentences need to be found, one by one, one word and verb at a time. One feels childlike, trying to put together an intelligible sentence so that your co-worker will understand what you’re saying and perhaps act on the information. The other side of this is understanding what is being said by a native speaker who does not falter or stutter or go slowly searching for the right conjugation of the subjunctive — the other side is receiving information and making sense of it — at first, as with speaking — slowly and haltingly, and then, with time, more and more quickly as with the masked man at the tax authority office today, who directed me (yet again) to another office. It was 9 am, and I worked late and went to bed late and woke early feeling like glass — all the light passing through me, and the streets of Lisbon, the canyons of buildings rising in the silvery morning light were made of glass, everything luminously dreamlike as everything is when your brain is tired from another week of linguistic gymnastics. So, you arrive at a government office at nine in the morning feeling transparent from so much mental effort, and you need to make yourself understood without understanding the tax system or what exactly it is you need since everyone is different words for what you are asking for, but you must be understood and must understand, so without coffee or breakfast or google translate you take off, like a skier launching onto the slopes — speed is a friend. Brace your feet on the starting block and go. All of your words come out, they are less halting now that you are two months into this immersion, and when his response comes, muddled by a mask, your ear takes in the sounds and pieces them together — you cannot be sure of all of them, but your ear knows the majority, your mind arranges them, you see there will be no help here in this agency today and you must return home to look up other offices, other email addresses and phone numbers. As you walk home you replay the masked words of the tax man, confirming again and again that your ear, that your brain got the message and interpreted it correctly.
Two weeks ago, after work was over and the doors were closed and we, the colleagues, sat to chat for a while before heading out into the rain. The conversation went back and forth in Portuguese, Spanish and came back to English only to confirm that I was following. It was a fascinating conversation, and what I was learning about my colleagues was not only enriching — it was deeply human, and entirely vulnerable. Twice during this time, I heard two of my colleagues saying, “Are you alright? Were you listening? Do you understand?” In one circumstance I had stopped to mentally translate a word from Spanish into Portuguese and then English, and by doing so had become lost, and in the other, had simply gotten lost — my ears suddenly unable to understand anything I was hearing. The voices of my colleagues may as well have been the sound of a waterfall for all that I was able to understand. When that happens, when words and voices lose meaning and sound like moving water, I have to relax my mind and focus my ear — if I breathe and relax into focus, the rapid words and their meanings will come together again.
Every week brings a new level of understanding, a new level of acquisition and growth towards fluency. A month ago was the week of response before translation. Quite simply, it was when I began to respond to questions asked of me in Portuguese before I had done any mental translation — I heard myself responding in Portuguese or French before my English-speaking brain had played its part and told me what I was hearing. The following week was the week of complete confusion — speaking to English speakers in Portuguese, French speakers in English, and English speakers in French — or, most strangely of all, responding to a co-worker in English, but spoken with a Portuguese accent. Some days I can’t decipher any language, and I have to listen for a long time before I am able to comprehend what language someone is speaking — those days I dread having to speak. I take my time observing the situation, waiting for myself to relax so that I can focus, so that I can throw myself into the situation and have some chance of swimming rather than going under.
I am coming to identify my current stage in the language acquisition through immersion process as the mental starting block. I am tensed, like a runner waiting for the shot — yet relaxed, fluid — as you must be in athletics — well trained, in fit form, relying on instinct and muscle memory and being in the moment. This is why I listen to English increasingly as if it is a foreign language — because that is how I am listening to everything around me. As the week draws on and the mind tires from such efforts, the confusion happens — using the wrong language with the wrong people or being baffled by my native language, or weaving them all together into one confused, though lovely tapestry. It still seems to me that fluency in any language other than my own is a distant dream, just as it seems to me that I have failed to capture the experience I have tried to relay here. I have tried to say this several times, as my notebook testifies — and right now, this autumn of 2022 as the rains arrive and the sea gulls raise their racket over the plaza where the leaves fall slowly and without pageantry, my access to fluency in my own language is changing, at least for now, at least this autumn as I fumble my way along hopeful, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes proud — and always wildly, wildly intrigued.