A Lesson in Learning Language

monkey_studying_001I have always wanted to be fluent in another language. However, my lack of grit and perseverance, as well as an inability to act in the present for future gain means that I always give up after a few months or a year, thereby leaving what can only be described as a trail of broken foreign language relationships behind me.

First, it started in primary school with Maori. Well, to be fair, the exposure was pretty token and what eight year old is going to learn a second language on their own outside of the designated 20 minutes a week in class? Then came French in my first year of high school. The prim and proper teacher who was about 80 years old had also been my father’s teacher decades before. That made parent-teacher conferences awkward. I enjoyed studying about les grenouilles (I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense – our content was often about little green frogs…there was no One Direction back then). I also did well in it, despite the humiliating time that the teacher asked me to stand up in front of the class and say ‘cat’ in French, which is, as everyone knows, spelled ‘chat’ and pronounced like ‘shat.’ Except that the ‘t’ is silent. I forgot that little nugget. Still, the teacher pulled me aside one day and told me that I was très bien at the Français and should continue with it next year. I had decided by that point that it was too hard, too boring and too bourgeois and instead wanted to listen to grunge music and deface my uniform with paint in the art room.

During my gap year, I went to Amsterdam and lived a with an Irish-Dutch family. Now I was attempting to learn Dutch. It should’ve been easy – the language is, after all, a combination of weird English and German. I watched The Simpsons and Friends in Nederlands and took classes with my French-Canadian nanny comrade Veronique. But it turned out that she was a genius who had skipped some years of school and would finish university in half the time and end up working in a senior post at the U.N. before she was 23. Which is a convoluted way of saying that I ate her dust in class and felt like an idioot.

I also ran into the problem/excuse many native English speakers face when traveling abroad, particularly in western Europe. Everyone replied to me in English. In fact, in that part of the world, almost everyone speaks English. Better than I do. I also lost heart when my host mother/boss/master indulged in that endearing Dutch quirk of speaking without a filter, telling me that not only was I a coward for not speaking Dutch fluently, but also that I smelt bad and should wear more deodorant.

Jump ahead two years to when I’m a poor, anemic undergrad. The university opens a brand new Spanish program and I was very excitado to join. I mean, Mojito, salsa, tango, flamenco, Manu Chao, Pablo Neruda, Frida Khalo, Sangria, Macchu Picchu. Need I go on? Classes were muy difícil but the tests were easy and I got an A. I was determined this time to learn, really learn but when I started the second year, the jump was too big and I couldn’t justify all the time and energy required for the classes when my major papers were suffering, so I had to quit. I still tried to learn on my own and with a tutor but time and motivation were lacking. Unsurprisingly, this lack did not serve me well on my various forays through Latin America.

Then after graduating I moved to Japan and had to study Japanese which seemed so, um, foreign to me, with its weird writing systems and bizarre grammar. I studied alone at work everyday and had weekly classes. I knew survival Japanese and could read and write the two simple writing systems. But then I moved and since Japanese is only spoken in one country, I wrote that language off too. Then I tried to study Korean, not very seriously though, a few classes here and there. It turns out that in Korea you can get by without knowing the language. Sometimes I chastise myself for being so lazy, but Korea is not home.  Then I started to study Brazilian Portuguese after I started capoeira so I could understand the songs and learn the names of the movements. I had always wanted to visit Brazil, and when I had the opportunity, I was able to bust out a few words here and there. The language barrier was oddly refreshing as basically nobody in Brazil can speak English.

But then, something incredibly bizarre happened and I found myself enamored with an Italian, which would therefore mean that I should learn Italian. So, thanks to Duolingo, I have been chipping away, gradualmente at this very beautiful, romantic and complex lingua. After dabbling in Italian for a few months and spending two months there last summer (where I also received some tutoring), I realized that I can’t actually speak any.

Since my brain is now about as plastic as a metal cage, it has been a very slow process. Sometimes it’s easy (no means no), sometimes it’s ridicolo (toothbrush is spazzolina), and often it is infuriating – why are simple, short words in English like towel, fridge and heating, asciugamano, frigorifero, riscaldamento respectively? And don’t get me started on L’uomo Pipistrello – AKA Batman.

I started to put pressure on myself to learn more, faster. But that approach doesn’t work with me, so I went to the other extreme and decided that I want to be fluent by the time I’m 70. Which means that I just have to learn a new word everyday. Today’s word? Perseveranza.


Fleeting Fall

10628109_10152318999236853_4100277807405930879_nThe short but incredibly beautiful fall season here in Korea is reaching its peak. All around there are pockets of trees showing off their dazzling hues of yellow, orange, red, brown and green. Each day, the pavements and roads show more evidence of the coming winter, but for brief moments, the fleeting beauty of scattered, multicolored, leaves hiding the drabness of city life is something to behold.

And as the leaves change, so does life, continuing its cycle – both predictable and unpredictable in equal measure. A week ago I was enjoying the autumn colors and playing the tourist, walking around the labyrinthine streets of Old Seoul where the traditional houses from hundreds of years ago share a hillside with renovated tea houses and dumpling restaurants. I visited the Aussie Reiki guy who lives in one of these ancient restored wooden houses with his Korean family. I needed an energy tune up and the added bonus of having a yarn with a fellow antipodean who was able to buoy me with his positivity.

And just a week ago, I was cheerily, mindlessly listening away to what was one of my favorite radio shows as I washed dishes, folded clothes etc. I had long admired the host, a certain Mr. Jian Ghomeshi, for his relaxed interview style, his excellent journalism, his immense accomplishments in the arts. And now Jian has been outed, disgraced, fired, his career and life completely in tatters after it was publicly revealed that he is, in fact, a violent and abusive man – a predator who physically violates women, who does not know what the word ‘consent’ means. I don’t know what’s more surprising, disturbing, or incredible – that he has kept this dark side of his life under wraps for so long or that someone can fall so far and so quickly, from a darling of the western media to pond scum. I hope he gets the help he needs and can rebuild his life on a foundation of honesty and integrity rather than deceit and violence. That he has gotten away with abusing women this long is testament to the stranglehold (for want of a better word) of the patriarchy.

1911794_10152319000161853_4643072715260880725_nAnd just a week or so ago, an old friend popped into my head. I wonder what Phil is doing these days, I thought to myself as I swept the dozens of strands of blond hair from my floor. Phil had been in a lot of my classes at university. We used to talk politics – both of us ‘lefty liberal’ as he would say. We were part of the anthropology gang, drinking coffee on breaks, frequenting bohemian bars with cheap beer and free live music. We had already lost one of our members to a car crash two years ago. The last time I met Phil was in my hometown a couple of years before that. We met for coffee (or in my case, tea). He opened up about his struggles with mental illness, the depression that followed him around like a storm cloud. And just a few days ago, I read via Facebook, that he was gone. Poof. As quickly as a leaf falls from a tree, an old friend is no longer with us. The cause of his death has not been revealed. I don’t want to speculate. It comes too closely on the heels of the untimely deaths of two more characters from my hometown who I had rubbed shoulders with on several occasions – musician Peter Gutteridge and artist Ben Webb.

Leaves fall from trees and turn to dust. The winter comes. Then spring arrives. Some of life has survived. Some of life is reborn. We must keep warm until the sun shines again and the buds re/appear.