Wednesday, March 7, 2012

At a Loss for Words - Beyond Translation

By Ernesto Alvarado

Courtesy of

As the meter in the cab continued to flutter upward in numbers, I couldn't help but think of how helpless I felt sitting in the backseat... literally as far away from control as possible. I was 35 minutes late to my meeting with friends and $20 lighter in the pocket because of my mispronunciation.
Carnival had just begun and I was supposed to meet up with colleagues of mine at Pier 2 along Cobacabana Beach but to my disappointment, I had inadvertently said "12". My overconfidence had bitten me and I realized that I needed to pour out the proverbial cup or risk breaking it. Teaching and learning in the realm of linguistics is interchangeable and the lessons one gains from learning a language expand far beyond translations.

Picking up a language has its basic difficulties: the vocabulary, sentence structures, conjunctions, and pronunciation. These are the basic elements that one can attain from sitting through the required Spanish 101 class that will enable the average person to order a quesadilla from their favorite Mexican place but little else. The actual LEARNING of a language, what those words actually mean within the context of the culture they derive from, is a relationship that also teaches one about the society in which that language is dominant. The immersion in a language incorporates mannerisms, slang, and pop references that extend beyond a textbook and flashcards.

Language is a reflection of its society. It evolves along with the culture that it represents; to learn the language is to incorporate those evolutions into oneself. Facebook is a perfect example of a social phenomena that created words and references that would be alien to a foreigner. A professor once quipped about the American youth, "You all must have a high level of self-importance if you all think you can replace 'befriend' with 'friended'." The Darwinian evolution of words and language replace anachronistic terms with new words, which best serve as representations of the new generation. What does this evolution and non-academic components teach a student of a language?

Well, for starters, trying to be fluent teaches us humility. It's one thing to learn a language in a classroom where the safe zone of a native language is 30 feet or 50 minutes away. It's something extraordinarily different to learn a language by practicing how to perform basic tasks. Mastery of one's native language begets arrogance, leaving the speaker with a full glass and a self-assured swagger. This is not a unique component of any society but rather, it exists subconsciously and manifests itself when someone conjugates the wrong term. We've been taught that intelligence is akin to eloquence. When one is stripped of that eloquence, the frustration can be infuriating when the words fail to capture the desire. Sink-or-swim immersion scenarios have a way of stripping away one's overconfidence, demanding instead the dogged and humble pursuit of fluency.

Pursuit of fluency in a language demands that one learn perseverance. Like anything that is learned, mistakes will be made. I've made a fool of myself more than once, and it's the only possible way you can attain fluency. I don't need to mention that taking calculated risks goes far beyond a language in life, but what better place to try out the "fall off and get back on the horse" strategy? The difficulty in immersing in a language is when those moments arrive when you feel like you're drowning or overwhelmed by it, but the final product will always make the initial struggles worthwhile.

Striving for fluency teaches us the beauty of not knowing what to say. Forced to listen and decipher the meaning behind each word and turn of phrase, we cultivate beneficial habits too often lost upon the monolingual world. The development of careful thought before speaking gives us the ability to carry forward in our other languages as mindful speakers as well as keeping our feet out of our mouths. Rare is he who can truly listen without feeling compelled to chime in. This attentive silence, in turn, provides space for opportunities to learn about the culture's linguistic underpinnings.

Fluency changes you. Languages aren't a random collection of letters put together in order to sound good for a culture. These languages have a unifying history packed within each word and phrase. The culture has constructed these languages through hundreds of years of trials and tribulations and when one takes on a language, they inadvertently take part in the history the language has. Learning about the historical context of a place will give one context on why things are going on and how they have happened in the past much like a language can be explained by its rich ancestry.

Becoming fluent is understanding you'll never be fluent. This is the most important thing to realize in the learning curve. As mentioned before, culture and society evolve, carrying language along with them. Even in one's native tongue, variations and regional dialects will always preclude perfection. Consequently, learning a language is as much about the evolution of one's character as about grammar or syntax.

Language learning is the beautiful frustration. No matter how astute the translator or excellent the dictionary, something remains lost in translation. Speakers of a language share quasi-familial bonds, but with the increasing role of globalization, adoption into these families is no longer simply an honor, but a necessity.

1 comment:

Ruvimbo said...

I can absolutely relate!! Love this...being a speaker of three languages, I know for certain that there is no completion to language learning, and the mix of cultural dynamics within the language itself makes the experience so much more complex! But it makes for more exciting learning...not just about words, but the people who create and live 'em!