I know that many of you are trying to learn a new language. Maybe you’re at the beginning of the journey; maybe a semester or a year into it; or maybe your long hard slog is nearing completion and you’re ready to get on with the next thing, which of course includes being a life-long learner.
For most of us, studying another language has been and will always be somewhat of a chore. There is the day-to-day sameness of classes and tutors and personal study; the never-diminishing stack of flashcards; the convoluted verb conjugations; the unfamiliar grammatical patterns; another tutor time to be planned.
For many of us, the learning – those moments when we discover something or finally figure something out – will always be fun. I laughed all day when I figured out that the literal translation of vacuum cleaner in Chinese is “suck dust machine.” What’s not to love about that?
You begin to see that there is meaning (and beauty) in unfamiliar characters or alphabets that seems to have too many similarly looking squiggly lines. And when you use that new pattern or phrase you have been trying to master, and it works, you do a happy dance!
But for all of us, the ability to communicate in another language – to converse with people on a deeper level, on their terms (and using their terms) is first and foremost a privilege.
To be sure, it doesn’t always feel like a privilege to know the language and live in an unfamiliar place –when we’re walking home through rubble in a dark alleyway; when we’re nearly turned into road kill by a homicidal truck driver; when an attempt to buy oranges in the market or stamps in the post office fails miserably; or when our attempts to become members of the local speech community are met with blank stares.
But, no matter how we feel about it (an emotion that changes from day to day), the fact remains that learning another language is a privilege for which we should be grateful.
This new language we are acquiring or have acquired is not just a tool that allows us to talk TO our local friends and colleagues. It is a tool that allows us to learn FROM them.
Learn before teaching; listen before talking.
It is their country; their language; their culture, and we are allowed to be participants.
That, my friends and fellow language learners, is a privilege.
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