Friday, January 17, 2014

Monolingual in a multilingual world

I've been an avid listener to global music for something like 25 years. One might even say I'm somewhat of a fanatic. It started when I picked up my first Ruben Blades record, or maybe Bob Marley. In all that time, I haven't had the slightest idea what most of the artists were singing about. (Thank you Mr. Marley for being born in Jamaica.) There were always a few artists that were explicitly trying to crack the Anglo market and thought it advantageous to include printed English lyrics or detailed liner notes with the package. Other than this, I was on my own. For a long time, though, that was fine. Whether it was Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic... I considered it all part of the music, an aural element in the mix, one more texture and color. I even told myself it was better that way, that I could dig the music more because I wasn't distracted by the lyrics.

I've come to realize that's bullshit. But it might be too late for me.

I've been fitfully trying to learn Spanish for several years. I dropped almost $500 on Rosetta Stone software, lured by their promise of fluency. It didn't go well. I was a good student for several weeks, dutifully donning my headphones for a half hour a day, running through the lessons. I think I made it to Level 3 of the first chapter. Much of it, though, was excruciating. I was good enough at picking out the right word, and my pronunciation skills weren't half bad. But when it came time to freestyle, to actually think, to figure out the right response to a question, I froze up, my brain rapidly tumbling into panic as I grasped for a lifeline.

After a while, I gave up. And, mostly, that's OK too. I live in a country and society where it's more important for non-English speakers to figure out my language than for me to understand theirs. So, despite my interest in cultural exchange, my fascination with issues around migration, my wanting to have some understanding of how the world works, I muddle through.

I've traveled to Puerto Rico several times, a few of them by myself, taking advantage of the fact that over a century of American colonialism will ease my gringo way. Hell, I can read road signs, and tourism insures that in places like San Juan, I'll find plenty of folks who will humor me. But I have a memory seared in my brain of visiting the La Guancha boardwalk in Ponce and looking for a table in a lovely open air restaurant. La Guancha isn't exactly locals only, but as I tried to figure out where to sit (the restaurant seemed to be divided into casual and more formal sections) I was a bit confused. So I asked for help. The waitress (hostess?) didn't speak English, and you already know about my Spanish. Panicked, I left and got some pinchos de pollo and a beer at a stand a bit farther down. Hey, anybody can point, signal quantity and pull out their wallet. Even me.

I began dating a woman from Guatemala three years ago, and have fallen deeply in love with her. I have every reason to believe we will be life partners. My fondest wish is that we'll retire somewhere in Latin America, living out our days in some idyllic coastal village that will somehow also have access to all the great things that urban life provides. And, given my lack of Spanish skills, I'll be somewhat lost.

When we started dating, I thought, OK, this is it, I'm going to be spending a lot of time around Spanish speakers. I'm finally going to learn some Spanish. (I should mention here that I took two years of the minimum required high school Spanish plus two semesters in college. It's not like I wasn't previously exposed to it.) Indeed, many of my girlfriend's friends are also from Latin America. Further, many of them are writers and poets in their native tongue. They are also by and large wonderful people, so when I'm around, they speak in my language. I'm grateful, of course, but I also have an awareness that they are doing me a favor, that they'd rather be speaking Spanish.

I regularly attend something called Palabra Pura, a bilingual spoken poetry and literature series that takes place above a Puerto Rican restaurant in Humboldt Park. That doesn't mean that everything is presented twice - it means that the writers use the language in which they can best express themselves. Many are Latinos, born in the US, growing up speaking English in public, Spanish at home. And then, of course, there is Spanglish, that fluid movement between two poles, using the one that has exactly the right word. Unlike music, there are only words for me to process at Palabra Pura. So, when Spanish predominates, I struggle, listening intently, catching random words, missing meaning. I've come to realize that I am missing the meaning of all that music as well.

I've begun to think that I'm suffering from the Michael Jordan syndrome. You know, Michael Jordan. Supremely athletic, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. At the age of 30, he decided that he wanted to play professional baseball. It was a disaster. See, Mike didn't learn how to hit a curve ball when he was young, and by 30 it was too late.

I'm way past 50. When I took those Spanish classes 30 something years ago, I was more interested in getting by than learning. I had no curiosity. I barely squeaked out of high school on schedule, and though I got a bit more serious in college, I still did the minimum, relying on superior test scores instead of hard work and studying. Now, I fear, I've lost the ability to make up for my youthful negligence. I look at my Rosetta Stone headphones, curled up on my nightstand, gathering dust, and I'm frustrated and angry with myself.

I generally celebrate that which I don't know, an essential component of learning. When it comes to language, though, I feel the presence of this thick, gauzy wall. It gives a little bit from time to time, only to close up once again, with me on this side and knowledge on the other. There's a whole world out there that I might never quite understand because of this, nuances I'll never grasp, poetry I'll never feel.

I suppose I'll keep muddling along and perhaps, with time, the gauze will begin to wear thin and show a few holes, revealing the mysteries beyond. Until then, I'll keep pointing and signaling.

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