I am often at a loss for words, which is another reason why I enjoy being occasionally mistaken as a foreigner–non-English speakers are excused for not knowing what to say. I love using the excuse “but English wasn’t my first language!” when I can’t explain something or pronounce something right with my multilingual friends who learned English as a second or third language. We laugh at this. For English is obviously my only fluent language. But still it’s partially true that it wasn’t my first. According to my Mom, I spoke my own babble language for a lot longer than most children. Up to the time I was three I was still speaking “babble”, especially when I tried to “read” stories. I’d display the pictures in my books and imitate the cadence and intonation of my Mom’s voice when she read to me. I couldn’t recognize all the words yet but this didn’t stop me from trying to “sound” like she did when she read. I couldn’t wait to understand everything she said before trying to “read” it myself. So I made up the words and tried to imitate her expressions. I’ve always loved speaking. It’s one of the first things I remember.
I still love “nonsensical” noise, which is why I am drawn to the beautiful and mysterious sound of Russian. I remember wanting to learn a foreign language so badly that I practiced making it up in elementary school. I even remember trying to get my dad to pretend with me. But he wouldn’t. Not even with the inspiration I offered. I’ve always wanted to learn another language. I went to school with several children of immigrants and I envied the other special languages they spoke with their families. It was a childhood friend, Elvira, who first introduced me to Russian. I am forever indebted to her for sparking my interest in her language and offering to teach me. Sadly, I wouldn’t actually learn Russian until college. I was too intimidated by the cyrillic letters to accept her offer. I was just starting to feel confident about writing English letters in the right direction and order. Russian seemed too difficult. So I didn’t dare try to learn it again until I reached College.
Besides, I was going to learn Spanish. Or so I thought. Certainly after studying Spanish in elementary and middle school and then another four years in high school I would know Spanish. I am embarrassed to admit how long I studied Spanish once people realize how little Spanish I actually know and can use. I did learn a lot about how people study and learn languages- especially how people don’t learn languages! Before my bitterness set in I remember loving Spanish class. I am proud to admit that my first memories of learning a 2nd language were exhilarating. I wanted to learn Spanish so much that I decided I should try to speak only Spanish at home as much as I could. I can’t help but laugh now trying to imagine how I tried to pull that off. It required a great deal of ambition and even more creativity considering how little Spanish I knew. My Mom grew more and more annoyed with me until one day she exploded and demanded that I never speak a word of Spanish at home again. I was heartbroken. My dream of speaking another language at home was crushed. I wanted to be like my friends that spoke another language at home! I learned this wasn’t why we studied Spanish and as a result I became a more passive language learner. I learned to have more “realistic” expectations about language learning- I’d never learn it well enough to be able to only speak it. I’d always have to use English to be understood. Before college my foreign language classes never seemed to expect us to become competent speakers.
Since I’ve always loved languages I thought I must naturally be good at learning at them when given a real opportunity. College taught me this isn’t necessarily so. I love languages but I am not very good at learning them. I seem to be even “below average.”When I started to learn Russian I encountered some of the same problems I first had learning to read and write English. I mixed the letters up and had a hard time attaching sounds to letters. I still struggle with this! In English and especially in Russian! So much for natural ability! My greatest strength as a language learner isn’t in my weak natural ability but rather in my unexplainable and even nonsensical enthusiasm. I thought we were only suppose to be excited about subjects we’re good at. But I was wrong. And I am glad! I take great encouragement from remembering these thoughts about enthusiasm:
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
“A man can succeed at almost anything for which he has unlimited enthusiasm.” -Charles M. Schwab