Sometimes, it takes stepping outside your language culture to understand the parts of it that you take for granted. So often, we think about language learning as merely a process of picking up a manageable set of grammatical rules and filling in the blanks with vocabulary. It requires tons of memorization and practice, but get those things down and you’ll be chattering away in Farsi or Mandarin or whatever language you’ve decided to dedicate your brain space to in no time.
The thing is, communication just isn’t as simple as all that. For one thing, literal translation is inadequate to interpret what a speaker intended to convey. Why is it that in English a person is a number of years old, but in Spanish, he or she has a number of years? What about face-saving expressions like “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” uttered by a person who is decidedly not sorry?
Then, there are the rules about how a conversation is conducted. Speakers take turns. There are appropriate moments to interrupt and for clarification or to add your opinion and there are inappropriate ones. There are relevant questions and observations and irrelevant ones. You can probably remember a time when somebody with limited social awareness derailed a conversation you were engaged in over and over and over again by making inquiries and comments that did not fit.
Imagine that the person who skipped socializing day at school is you. How does the group feel about talking to you? Now, imagine that you suck at conversation because most of it is happening in a language you don’t really understand.
Congratulations. You are me.
Every day, I sit at the lunch table among Korean teachers, and they speak Korean. Of course, they speak Korean; this is Korea—this is their everyday life, and even those who do speak some English are not going to constantly choose the language that limits their expression and makes them uncomfortable over the one that they live their lives in, whether there is a speaker of that language sitting across from them or not. I know I didn’t when the seats were reversed.
I never chose to have a conversation with my colleagues in Spanish when I worked for The Literacy Center even though I have limited ability in the language, even though some of them speak it fluently, even though we were often in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Had one of those Spanish speakers chimed in with something to say, I would have listened and tried to understand, and tried to engage them in conversation a little. Then, I would have gone back to the conversation I was having in English before that person spoke up.
In the two years that I worked for The Literacy Center, this never happened. In two years, I didn’t notice that this never happened.
Cut back to me, now, the foreigner at the lunch table. There is a conversation happening around me in Korean. I catch a word here and there, a name, the word for “this.” Sometimes I know they are talking about the new school some teachers will be moving to in March. Sometimes I know nothing. I am silent. I would like to talk to the science teacher about where she will be teaching next year, to discuss whether she is happy about the move or not, to find out if her school is larger or smaller than ours, to find out what she thought of the teachers she met when she visited it.
I cannot have this conversation. The only thing I’ve heard to clue me in to the discussion is the word “Dongbaek,” spoken with rising intonation and her affirmative “mmm” plus slight head nod. I cannot have this conversation, and it’s not just because I don’t speak Korean and can barely tell where one sentence ends and the next begins. I can speak to this group in English, and most of them can answer me in English.
But I don’t want to speak just to hear my voice. I am not a child figuring out how this conversing stuff works. I know how to have a conversation. I want to contribute meaningfully to this one. If I ask something that’s already been asked or that is related to “Dongbaek” but not what they are talking about, I am the social failure. I am the penny on the tracks that derails the train that was taking everyone else where they wanted to go. I am the noise they are humoring until they can get back to what they are talking about.
Nope. I’m not going to be that person. Not today. Today, I will be silent until someone invites me into the conversation. Today I will wait until I know it is my turn to speak. It happens less often now that the novelty of my presence has worn off.
I am the foreigner at the table. I am silent. I am waiting.
This article and others about language and literacy can be found on ThinkLiteracyBlog.wordpress.com.