Monday, November 7, 2011

The trilingual's dilemma

Learning a new language is a unique thrill. For me there's nothing quite like putting together a chaotic bundle of new sounds, ambiguous rules, and a generous helping of guesswork in order to connect to a new set of potentially millions of people on a level you never could have before. Anthropological conventional wisdom holds that you cannot learn a language without learning a culture as well, and I tend to agree. So I find a deep satisfaction in the process, something special and different and incredibly rewarding.

Learning Chinese brought me amazing places and allowed me to see and do wonderful things, and I'll always be grateful for that (for the curious, details of those adventures can be found in the initial years of this blog.) And, frankly, being a Chinese speaker has become a point of pride and identity for me. Not very many Americans speak Chinese, and I think some part of me likes that this ability shows I am willing to work hard, take my own path, and try new things. But part of coming to Spain was deciding to put Chinese on the back burner for a little bit.

I originally abandoned Spanish at age 13, jumping ship in high school for the more exotic (and verb conjugation-free) Chinese. For the next ten years, my Spanish language acquisition was pretty spotty. My knowledge of the language amounted to a bizarre mix of three years of middle school basics (Where is the library? The library is in the center of the city...), Rosetta Stone, podcasts, six weeks worth of mornings-and-nights (with creamy English-teacher-training-class centers) in Mexico, and a handful of weeks in Spain. It was only once I hit my 20s and spent the aforementioned time in Spanish-speaking countries that I realized I was ready to face the grammar challenges my 13-year-old self so loathed.

When I started meeting with a language partner in Boston prior to my departure for Spain, I was painfully aware of my inability to, say, speak in the past tense or express in any way my opinions on a topic. I also suffered from frequent code-switches (when the brain reaches for a word in one language and comes back with it in another)-- often I wanted to speak Spanish and found Chinese on my lips instead. It was incredibly frustrating, but with some practice I got to a place where I could access the two brain folders marked "foreign language" separately. I wrote about the beginnings of my trilingualism in this blog during my stay in Mexico, and I came to Spain feeling optimistic.

It took me a few weeks to banish errant Chinese from my brain, but after a month of immersion here in Palencia I felt I had succeeded. Around that time I started my Spanish classes at the Escuela de Idiomas (90 euros for an entire year's worth of courses, 2 or 3 times a week! Gotta love socialized education.) Although part of me balked at being put in the "Basico 2" level, in the end it was the right choice. Yes, I could express myself at a more intermediate level, but there were a huge number of grammatical holes in my language base that no amount of podcasts, Spanish soap operas, or Colombian pop songs could have ever filled.

Instead, with the help of my classes, I started to feel more solid in my linguistic footing. I could finally confidently speak in past tense, I was able to express myself generally in social situations, and I could go to bank and the grocery store, could generally Get Things Done. But the proverbial sword is double edged, of course. I wrote here in my last entry about visiting Valladolid, but there's one part that I left out:

During our program's orientation in Madrid, I met the only Chinese language assistant in Castilla y Leon. Her English name is Lydia, and I was very excited to introduce myself and get her contact information. Lydia and I met for lunch during my visit to Valladolid... and try as I might, I could not get my Chinese to come out and play. It was the opposite feeling of my time in Boston, as I struggled to express myself and failed. My sentences were a garbled mix of Chinese and Spanish, and there were points when I literally had no idea which language I was speaking and only recognized I had sprinkled random Spanish adjectives into a sentence after the fact. It was like I had lost control of my language center altogether. I felt bad for Lydia, who was confused and trying to help, but I felt even worse for myself. I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't proud of my six years of Chinese and when being a Chinese speaker wasn't part of who I was. It was horrifying to think I had lost so much hard work in less than a month.

Luckily, since that lunch I've gained a little bit of optimism. A few weeks afterward, I spent an hour trying to help my Spanish teacher communicate with a brand new arrival from Zhejiang. It was the closest to an aneurysm I hope I will ever experience, switching back and forth between Spanish and Chinese-- at some points I could barely find words in English. But in the course of my efforts I discovered that switching between Spanish and English, then English and Chinese, made it a lot easier. Something about the relationship between my two foreign tongues was causing dissonance. But I have found that cutting out that dynamic (or doing something to ease the transition, like practicing writing or listening to Chinese language music) seems to help some of what I've lost come back to me. And that, in turn, helps me feel all that work, and that linguistic and cultural world in general, is not lost to me.

Life in Palencia is still chaotic, but as things settle down I have big plans, and one of them is to spend more time nursing my Chinese back to health (along with pitching to English-language magazines in Madrid, joining a gym, going to the market more often, and on and on...). Chinese is not totally absent from everyday Spanish life, after all: there is an entire genre of stores (the kind that sell cheap electronics and everyday necessities) that are referred to as "Chinos" after the most common ethnic identity of their owners.

I could speak with the owners of these stores, practice with Lydia, and devote myself to trilingualism, yes. But I have to remember as well that things may never be the same as they were when I was writing my thesis in Yunnan, or even when I was just using the language to keep in touch with my friends and write articles for an immigrant newspaper in Boston. In gaining this gift of direct linguistic access to the world of Garcia Marquez, bullfights, tapas, tango, and Neruda, I have to lose something, too. But wasn't that always the way it was going to be, leaving Boston for something new?

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