The end of the semester is upon me and many other students in the U.S.
I look back at the past year and I see the projects that I started, the languages that I forgot as well as those which I fortified.
Earlier this year I thought that I would be learning Romansh (a minority language in Switzerland) and while I did make progress I found myself disenchanted and chasing other things.
On the other hand, my growing obsession with the Greenlandic is something that really caused me to think about what makes me continue a project, as opposed to starving it.
This needs to be said: I am still frustrated by the fact that I don’t consider myself fluent in Greenlandic yet, despite listening to the music and the news every day, and speaking exercises (especially for people who want to hear what the language sounds like).
Back when I was in college, I had an obsession with Slavic Languages (although I still believed the lie that fluency wouldn’t be possible to achieve an adult, a falsehood that deserves to “go its way” for good [to use a Norwegian idiom]).
However, in the past few years my Russian has been turned on / off, but remains very weak, and I seem to have forgotten almost everything in Polish (which I never knew to a good conversational degree anyway, despite having lived in the country).
I remember one vivid incident from someone’s birthday party (in Germany) in which I tried to speak Russian with someone who proceeded to tell me that “you do not speak language of empire! You speak language of empire with Polish mistake!”
That was probably the least provocative thing I heard that evening…from him, at least.
When people ask me why I forgot pretty much all of the Russian that I knew, I usually point to this incident. (Thanks to a few encouraging people, I have managed to dredge a bit of what I have, but it is a far cry from any sort of fluency…you know who you are. Большое спасибо!).
I remember a number of times in the past year when I walked away from an interaction saying, “That’s it! I’m going to give up (Language x) forever!”
However, looking back, I realize that it takes a long time to seriously forget a language almost completely (and forgetting a language completely is impossible!)
Looking more realistically at the situation, it seems that the main reason that I forget languages is merely because I want to devote time to other ones.
It isn’t really that I lose interest in the language or culture, but rather than another language or culture waltzes in, enchants me, and demands more and more of my time.
But what exactly is this “enchanting me” thing about?
Rarely if ever is it about the actual sound of the language (I consider Norwegian to be one noteworthy exception in this regard).
If a language enchants me enough to demand more and more of my time, it is usually for the following reasons:
- Positive reinforcement from peers. I get asked lots of questions about Greenland and Greenlandic by virtually everyone. People of all ages are very intrigued by my interest in the language and culture and want to know how exactly I got into it. I associate this knowledge with very positive feelings and a sense of belonging, probably more than knowledge of any other language.
- Media. What really gets me hooked on a certain language project after I learn a bit of it is the music, the news, the revival efforts, the podcasts. If I find shows and songs that I really, really like, this also acts as positive reinforcement. At some point the language ceases to be about vocabulary lists and exists in your mind only as an incarnation of materials for native speakers. Those materials, as well as people to whom you speak, are the real reason that I or anyone else undertakes these projects to begin with.
- Cultural Mentality. This is definitely difficult to explain. It is puzzling to understand why a certain sense of humor or body language associated with various cultures would appeal to you, but with the language comes that side to yourself that is created, and supplants itself in your identity sphere, most markedly in your dealings in your native language. Among all language learners I have seen that the languages that they commit themselves to are carried with a desire to be initiated into the cultural mentalities of their respective cultures.
You may not be able to get a foreign passport with ease from any country, but this is just as good, and while it may take a lot of work it is a lot easier than many of you may believe it to be.
And now for something exciting…
It seems that some languages of mine are on their way out, but I have been enchanted by a new language that I will begin to study and continue to study over the break.
I bet that none of you will possibly guess what it is…
Post on it soon!