On Language and Learning

August 25, 2010

When I first started this blog, I figured I’d aim to cover the more esoteric, introspective topics of my stay here. Up until now, I haven’t covered much of that at all; it’s been mostly updates on what exactly I was doing, not how I felt about it. There will probably be a great deal more of the general status updates in the future, but I’d also like to spill my guts a little for the entire Internet to see. But by the same token, I’d like to avoid the long-winded. By this point you’re probably thinking “Ok, so get on with it!”

A number of recent “discoveries” regarding my mastery (or lack thereof) of the language I’m surrounded by on a daily basis here have come about recently. Not that I wasn’t expecting them, by any means, but actually being presented with them is a little exhilarating. I thought I’d share a few things I’ve noticed so far.

First and foremost, it seems to be all about preparation. Spontaneous communication is very difficult to understand. I’ve gathered that a lot of my understanding comes from context. For example, if you’re ordering food, the clerk is much more likely to ask you whether you’d like it for here or to go than he or she would be to ask what time the train to Bucharest departs. In theory, I’m well-prepared to answer either of those questions, given that the environment is right. With that being said, when approached by somebody whose business you have no prior knowledge of, it’s an entirely different ballgame to decode what they’re saying.

A woman came to my door to and informed me that I needed to pay her 200 dinars (a smaller sum of money than it sounds) for cleaning the stairs of the apartment building. When I saw the unfamiliar woman at my door, I immediately froze up. While I technically understood many of the words that came out of her mouth, it was all I could do to respond with something to the effect of “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Serbian very well” in hopes that she would leave. Not so. However, what that did afford me was a reiteration, albeit slower, of what she had originally said. The woman’s understanding expression led me to believe that I had all the time in the world to respond. This helped tremendously, as I was able to piece together what exactly she wanted and why. While I didn’t close the door feeling particularly victorious, I have convinced myself that small triumphs are worth celebrating, which brings me to my next point.

It’s unbelievably easy to get lost in a rapid stream of unfamiliar sounds. Trying to piece them together into an intelligible, meaningful sentence is even more of a task. With that in mind, I have made it a point to congratulate myself (not outwardly) when it comes to any success when dealing with language, regardless of how insignificant it may seem. The feeling of satisfaction after even the most mundane, yet reasonably fluent and successful transaction is incomparable.

At the end of the day, it seems that “book smarts” don’t mean much. I understand that this idea is a little played, but it makes a lot of sense with language learning. While my grammatical and linguistic knowledge of Serbian allows me a bit of a head start, it also hinders when it comes to fluency. Diving in head-first pays off when it comes to dynamic understanding and eloquent speech, which, after all, are what really matter. Perhaps more of a “speak first, ask questions later” approach.

With that being said, I’ve learned quite a bit regarding readily understanding and quickly producing sentences in the month that I’ve been here. I imagine that more time will simply yield more results.

2 Responses to “On Language and Learning”

  1. Tess Says:

    Oh man, I totally know the feeling. When I first moved to Croatia at 16 it was like being immersed in a 24/7 stream-of-consciousness babble – in other words, my brain exploded on a daily basis. Then it started to make sense. And it was like winning a gold medal every conversation that I didn’t fail horribly. I’d also agree that just throwing yourself into everyday interaction at every possible opportunity is immensely helpful, and it helps create a context for even totally weird, totally foreign situations (like a woman asking for money for sweeping the stairs). And it’s funny that you mentioned getting lost in unfamiliar sounds – it made me think of conversing with tons of background noise, and how difficult it is. Sometimes when talking in a crowd it may look like I’m not listening to someone, but really, I have my ear facing their voice and let my eyes not focus on anything to apply the entirety of my concentration solely on making sense of their words. But again, that’s just during some of the hardest moments – it all gets easier beyond that.

    Anyway, this was a long-winded comment but I can just totally relate. Good luck over there, and believe me, I know how hard it can be, but you’ll leave there with a ridiculous knowledge of the language that’ll stick with you forever.

    Cujemo se!

  2. ant Says:

    hi nephew!!! this is my first real check in with your blog and I had to write because what you were saying about the language stuff brought me straight back to my 6 months in Japan. Most of it I was by myself, no other English speakers I lived with or anything. And you don’t want to be one of those gringos that just hangs out with( clings to!)other gringos anyway. I found an abandoned stray kitten one night and it became, pathtically, something I would talk to in my apartment when I felt really isolated. Course it died fairly quickly… gawd.

    Anyway, yes, the exploding head thing your friend mentioned above, my god, every minute was a head explosion. Your head never got put back together, you just walked around with a dazed exploded head. Plus with Japanese’s difficult written language there is a visual layer of confusion on top of the auditory one! You can’t just glance out the window, there’s always a sign saying SOMEthing and your brain always tries automatically to read it and understand it, which is a lot of work. You probably experienced that with Arabic. I was 25 yrs old but I was constantly exhausted over there. Plus Japanese people don’t really want you to speak Japanese, at least they didn’t then. it’s like their private cultural identity and they want to keep it to themselves. They think a few words is amusing when you try, but beyond that they get pretty uncomfortable. I was a greeter/hostess in a restaurant and would greet customers in Japanese. There were two responses: either ignore me totally and walk past me because they couldn’t believe their eyes, or look at me in shock and laugh (yes, sometimes point and laugh!) Neither one was very easy on the ego!! Also, I know what you mean about the book vs. street learning. We learned formal male Tokyo Japanese in the books, where informal female Osaka Japanese is what would have been appropriate for my situation. Altho I never DID get to that place where I felt functional with the language, which was always a regret for me, I still to this day have VIVID memories of the few times when it clicked, beautifully, wonderfully, and I knew I was understood and I had used the right tense/verb etc. Like a door cracking open to another world, then slamming shut again! But what a world!! So tantalizing and amazing. And that feels SO SO great!! Makes all the struggle worth it. I guess the struggle/door crack stuff slowly trade places over time so that finally the open door occupies more of your reality than the struggle. What a great place to be. I wish I had been able to work through all the difficulties and stayed longer and gotten to such a place. You my friend, will get there! You have the supportive situation and the tenacity, and you love the look of that other world enough to fight for it. So hang in there, and in the meantime there’s such a wealth of strange occurances, humorous incidents and poignant memories going on, aren’t there! Sorry for the encyclopedia response, reading your post just took me right back to Japan and my troubled time there. ant

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