Wednesday, January 13, 2016

THE VULNERABILITY OF LANGUAGE LEARNING

My language teacher told me one day that we were going to walk down to the local store. I would have to buy something speaking only Khmer. I was thirsty, so I decided I would buy a bottle of water. Every corner store has water. I knew how to say it. I knew about how much it should cost. I could do this.

I got to the store and didn’t see bottled water. There was a cooler that might have water, but I completely forgot how to ask about that (it did, in fact, have water in it—Lauren had to do the same activity a day or so later, and asked the employee like a champ). I panicked. My teacher was watching, the store employee was watching, and I was freaking out in front of both of them because every single vocabulary word I had learned over the previous weeks evaporated.

Lauren is diligently studying Khmer with her teacher on the roof of one of our language schools.

I finally mustered a very generic “How much does this cost?” and pointed to the nearest item I saw. I bought it and left. On the way back, I realized to my chagrin that I had bought a chocolate milk-flavored sucker.

Every encounter has the possibility of going like this. I never know when the slightest bump will send my carefully crafted sentence into a tailspin, and I’ll have to walk home pretending like there’s nothing I’d rather quench my thirst with on a hot day than a chocolate-milk dum dum.

Some people are brave. They can go with the flow. They can correct mistakes mid-sentence. They’re not afraid to look dumb until they get their point across. I wish I were that way. But I have a flight mechanism that occasionally activates involuntarily, and I’m outta there. It can make language learning hard sometimes.

The Khmer language isn’t making it any easier on me. There are several sounds in Khmer that don’t exist in English. I try to write things out phonetically in my notebook, but there’s not always an easy way to do that. My attempts to do so have birthed descriptions such as “put tongue on top of mouth as if choking yourself” and “pronounced with a silent and very toothy R.” I kid you not, these are taken verbatim from my notes. You know you’re skimming the dregs of your imagination’s limits when you’re forced to choke yourself or to call an R silent and toothy. And yet I find myself in this place every day.

Khmer requires such a different conceptualization of language than I am used to, and I only have short bursts of time in which to practice this new conceptualization before the flight mechanism does a manual override and I end up with an unmanageable collection of unappealing lollipops.

As my teacher and I walked back to class from the store, chocolate milk sucker in hand, I felt the need to make small-talk (in English). I asked her a question that I already knew the answer to because I couldn’t think of anything else to say: “Do Khmer people like it when you try to speak Khmer with them?” She gave a surprisingly insightful answer to my bland question.

“Yes, they do,” she said. “Sometimes they are embarrassed because they cannot speak English, but they want to have a relationship with you. If you speak Khmer, it makes them happy.”

I had been so focused on how learning a language makes me vulnerable, but she showed me that not learning the language makes other people vulnerable. It is both safe and selfish to always ask other people to be more vulnerable than I have to be.

As I reflected on this, I realized that every time two people communicate anywhere, it is a vulnerable act. Just because you share a native language with someone doesn’t mean you share true understanding. Even when two native English speakers have a conversation, the desire to be known can cause us to open up, or just as easily, the fear of being misunderstood and rejected can cause us to put up walls. Throwing ourselves into communication—in any language—is a very vulnerable thing to do. 

I often fear vulnerability in English conversations, and it's even stronger when I try to speak in Khmer. Fear of vulnerability tempts me to put up walls. But the Cambodian people feel this vulnerability in conversations with me too, and perhaps they put up walls. If one of us has to do the hard and scary task of speaking in another language, I hope I can be the one to take on this extra measure of vulnerability. I hope that by being diligent in learning and speaking this language, even in situations that scare the daylights out of me, I can make one small step toward breaking down the walls that separate us. 

I did not, however, eat the lollipop. No way. That thing looked nasty.