The best reason to learn a language is not to be able to speak it, but to be able to listen.
And being able to listen is the last skill to develop. For a painful time, each word and meaning is excavated by any means possible.
Looking into the eyes of the speaker and watching the shape of the mouth as it forms words can help you take an educated guess at what is being said. Red lipstick helps.
It is dangerous, however, when driving on the 405 and turning to watch Gypsies speak in either the shotgun seat or backseat. After being the target of aggressive honking for drifting too near to a lane line, I repented and kept my eyes forward and on the road. It was fascinating to then realize that – despite people saying that I am fluent in French – I suddenly had no idea what was being said to me because I could no longer gather non-verbal cues. Those who say I know the language have no idea that I recently had exhorted the Gypsies to “Drive softly,” as they returned from ‘Vegas.
But any last confidence in my abilities was eliminated the next day when four-year-old Kirsten decided that she needed to teach me French because she was tired of me saying that everything was “…excellent”. She would shake her heard and look at me gravely while saying, “Ce n’est pas excellent. C’est bon. Seulement. C’est tout. (Not excellent, Just good. That’s all.)”
I began to retrain this obnoxious pattern that I had developed by saying “super…splendide…formidable…merveilleuse…” in the car while driving rather than remain stuck in my “…Excellent Adventure…” that even Keanu Reeves had left behind after it helped make him famous. But I was newly aware of not just differences in vocabulary but also differences in culture. I want my four-year-old professeur to be proud of me.
When you are French and in love, you don’t say “I love/live for/worship/am completed by you.” You say, “Je t’aime.” I LIKE you. This says enough to make progress without crossing the line into the other person’s lane. Demonstrations of passion might be limited to artistic appreciation, a feast displayed on the table, and political demonstrations. Or Barbies, if you are four-years-old and have the blood of Django Reinhardt flowing through you.
Each of these moments with the Gypsies has been spent with a storm in my brain as it tries to understand that increases to being Sandy-ferocious. Increasingly, I am less interested in choosing the words that will help them know what I am trying to say. I don’t want to be understood: I want to understand. And I fight against having no faith that I will comprehend the words they speak to me.
And after I comprehend the words, how long will it take to understand?
The cultural mythos of the Ugly American must have partly been the consequence of fast food drive-through windows. We require something fatty/sweet and wrapped in bold colors to devour without having to go through the inconvenience of parking our car and sitting across the table from another soul. We yell orders for our voices to be picked up by the mic and sent to the headset-wearing server for perfect rapid execution. Negligible application in the life beyond the drive-through lane…
The bravado that elevates our voices in war or end-zone victories is valueless in forming bonds. It makes a point, but alienates people despite communicating a message. A voice that requires attention is a voice that gets heard at the expense of holding hostages. With babies, absolutely necessary and acceptable for them to be little tyrants. Beyond that, examples fail.
Have you ever been in a meeting when someone won’t stop talking? You start to count their catchphrases and try to insert escape-hatch segues that are ignored. All the hostages imprisoned at the table develop the gray stare and savor their last remaining hope that the meeting will end on time. That standard hope that they will be able to contribute is as impossible as learning a foreign language…And then you remember the times when you were younger (yesterday?) and couldn’t shut up or didn’t care to, and you regret being a fool. You wonder how many people decided to treat you like Muzak, ignoring you as white noise while they continued making progress throughout their day and only sometimes tapping their toe to your beat.
The Pentecostal belief of speaking with the unknown tongues of angels is a peculiar mystery that makes more and more sense as I age. That we could become an instrument of speaking instructions and truths from the Spirit of God into this tattered vengeful place is a really good idea. I declare that it qualifies as excellent. Conveying heavenly secrets that break through darkness and bring light must be as miraculous as looking into the eyes of another person and suddenly realizing that I UNDERSTAND. Truthfully, when speaking with Seigneur Saveur – L’Eternel – what we have to say is much less interesting than what might be said to us. Truthfully, when speaking with Anyone, what we have to say is much less interesting than what might be said to us.
Because one day, there is the possibility that you will write the name of Django Reinhardt fearlessly and not have to check if it is spelled correctly.
Perhaps the admonition to Drive Softly was bon, after all…
Quote of the Blog from Keith Richards: “…There’s a canvass. It’s called silence. Where do you want to make your mark? A little dab here? And don’t forget, don’t cover the whole canvas. We don’t want a Rubens here!”
Image of anatomy of a mouth, courtesy of acm.uicu.edu .