To learn or not to learn?

I have one more installment of the When Helping is Hard series to write, but it ain’t gonna happen today. Because today I am sick, and feel utterly pathetic, and in no mood to try to write a well-crafted post highlighting how absurdly difficult it can be to spend money to help others in ways that “do no harm.”

So I have sent Mike off to the office for a full day of meetings and said a little prayer that he doesn’t get whatever it is that I’ve been battling for the last couple of days. I’ve googled  “dengue fever”. I have determined that I probably just have a plan old cold, albeit one that comes with a nasty headache, and that I am most likely in no mortal danger. And I have cancelled my Lao language lesson for the day – which gave me a brief burst of that feeling I used to get as a kid when I woke up and found that school had been canceled because of snow or military lockdown (depending on which country we lived in at the time).

After three months here, my Lao remains decidedly crap. Mike had a significant head start on me and he has been making some good progress. I love listening to him trying to make himself understood and he looks downright sexy when he’s trying to ask people what type of laundry detergent is the best one to buy. He is fearless – he just puts himself out there with his big smile and animated hands and even when people don’t have a clue what he is saying they love him for trying.

It’s taken me a couple of months to decide that I even want to try.

I feel a bit defensive and embarrassed about this, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t like learning new languages.

We moved around a lot while I was growing up and I spent too much time learning bits and pieces of languages – Bengali, Spanish, Shona – that I never gained any sort of proficiency in. After five years of high school study, with a brief revival during my time at Notre Dame, I am somewhat functional in French, but it’s never really done much for me. Certainly not enough, in my mind, to justify the many hours of study I invested to get to that point.

I know that really throwing myself into learning Lao could unlock a wealth of experiences here that I will never have otherwise, and part of me really wants to be that person who’s genuinely excited by the novel puzzle presented by a brand new language – one with six tones and an abugida script. But another part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Lao will be virtually useless outside this country and you are better off taking that time and energy and investing it elsewhere – reading, writing, and perhaps even setting your mind to learning the English grammar that somehow also got missed in childhood during all that country hopping.”

So for the time being I’m taking the middle road and having lessons twice a week. Perhaps this is the worst of both worlds – enough study to feel like hard work, but not enough to get me very far. My aims are modest though. I’m just hoping that it will help me learn how to say more than “good morning” and “you did a great job today” to our maebaan, Un, and perhaps make some basic conversation during long lunches and official dinners.

If this past weekend is anything to go by it won’t take too much to make some small progress on that front. On Saturday, Mike and I spent several hours out at his deputy’s farm. A couple of months ago one of Kampono’s buffalos was stolen and during a similar long lunch around that time we all drank many toasts to the productivity of the remaining herd. So I was delighted to see some baby buffalos in amongst the bigger ones that came wandering out of the trees to check out the music and the smoky scent of meat grilling over an open fire.

“Kwai noy,” (“buffalo small”) I said, pointing and smiling.

There was a sweet-looking older man to my left. He spoke not a word of English but he had been watching out for me all day, refilling my juice and putting food on my plate every time I turned my attention elsewhere. When I said this you might have been forgiven for thinking that I was his favorite child who’d just said her first words.

Kwai noy! Kwai noy!” He said, nodding vigorously and correcting my pronunciation. Then he turned to everyone at the table and told them my Lao was “keng heng” (very strong).

Then he reached over, picked up a long skewer of grilled pineapple, chilies, and beef liver, and placed it on my plate.

[PS, I’m curious. What do the rest of you – particularly those that move often – do about language? Do you try to learn? Why or why not? Have you ever put time into learning a language and then felt that it wasn’t worth it?]

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18 responses to “To learn or not to learn?

  1. Just as a warning, I’d be cautious in talking too much about water buffaloes. Kwai is also slang for male reproductive parts so of course talking about little buffaloes could make for some interesting interpretations. I could never get the word for clam correct either.

    It’s hard to want to keep trying with each new language.

  2. Oh dear, yes, now that you mention it I had heard that. That may account for some of the general animation around the table that I had attributed to my outstanding language skills. Oh well.

  3. No matter where I am, and no matter how long my stay, I go after the local language like a piranha after fresh steak.

    No doubt this is partly because as an extrovert, talking is as important to me as, say, breathing.

    But there are a few other reasons:

    First, if I cannot understand what the people want to share with me, if I cannot share with them in return, you might as well just strangle me and put me out of my misery. It drives me NUTS when I can’t understand. I feel that I am there to serve them, and yet my lack of language skill keeps me from serving as well as I could. For this Scotch Irish girl, that is totally unacceptable.

    Second, I want to honor them. I mean, really honor them. I want my learning of their language to be, in itself, an act of service and love. A daily demonstration that tells them they are important to me.

    Third, I learn because I CAN. Life is short and the world is big. There’s so much amazing stuff to learn and to experience. Who cares if I never use that language again (although, without fail, I always do). I have been given the chance to learn something glorious and new! To flood my brain with knowledge while so many live narrow, isolated lives. This is a supreme privilege.

    Last, I learn because there is something so spectacular about experiencing God in another language. To pray in the words of one of His tribes, to sing with fellow believers in the language of their hearts…to experience Him outside the confines of my own limited vocabulary. Beyond cool.

    In my opinion, it is always, always, always worth it.

    • Kelli, what an inspiring defense of learning the local language! I laughed out loud at your piranha comment, and agree with you that learning to speak people’s language is a powerful way to honor them and can teach us to think and experience life (and God) differently.

      Where I get a bit stuck, myself, is on the life is short part, because I feel that life IS short and I CAN’T experience and learn everything that I want to experience and learn and I wonder whether the time I’m spending in Lao language lessons wouldn’t be better invested in reading or some other such different form of learning.

  4. Hmm. I have to say my approach is quite different to Kelli’s… But perhaps that’s a contextual one. My general approach has usually been to make an effort to at least learn the niceties of a language- hello, goodbye, thank you, how is your family, etc. My first major trip to a developing country (2 months in Kenya) I put quite a bit of effort into learning Kiswahili and had reasonable comprehension (though only basic spoken ability) by the time I left- but it’s a fun and easy language to get along with (I also learned a handful of Turkana phrases while up in the villages, but never more than a couple of basics). I tried the same approach with Thai the following year and found myself considerably less linguistically versatile.

    Because most of my travel has been short (less than 1-month) trips to a wide variety of countries, this quickly became unsustainable and exhausting. I was having a harder and harder time keeping track of various polite phrases, and started to see less and less payoff in making the effort, especially as I am usually accompanied by local staff with whom I can communicate in English, French or Spanish. When I moved to Niger I had good intentions of becoming linguistically current and set about learning some key Hausa phrases during my two months in Maradi, only to discover (upon being reassigned to Niamey) that in addition to French as the lingua franca, the country is dominated by four major language groups (Hausa, Djerma, Fofolda and Tamachek), all of which swirl around in Niamey depending on who you’re talking to. I settled on ‘Bonjour’ and ‘As-salaam aleikum’ as my fallbacks and went no further.

    In PNG I picked up a handful of tok pisin phrases but had had the will pretty much beaten out of me by then (you recall the Abyss, no doubt)- and besides, tok pisin is just another generic creole in a country with eight hundred languages. The following year, based in Sri Lanka for three months, the politics involved in knowing whether to speak in Tamil or Sinhala (not to mention the fact that their basic phrases already sounded pretty complex) broke me, and I stopped trying.

    So, yeah, you can call me a linguistic heathen if you like, but I just find when I’m in a place for a couple of months it’s too much effort to try and learn one more set of phrases that will just drift away again and muddle what I already have up there (I had to re-learn greetings in Hausa and Djerma this time round as they had been annihilated from my memory these past five years).

    That said, of course, I am saying this from the platform of somebody who speaks near-fluent French and reasonably conversant Spanish- which coupled with English gives me pretty decent communication in most of Europe, Africa, Australasia and the Americas- even if I’m not going to pass myself off as a local. I also have a real hankering to learn Arabic (I’ve taken lessons and can decipher the characters but want immersion- beautiful language and script). And at last count, in my defence, I can at least greet people in (at last count) 17 languages- though I don’t doubt that others reading this blog will be able to trump that number by a considerable amount 🙂

    • I can’t trump you on that 17… I’m not sure how many greetings I can manage but I’m fairly sure it’s not 17. As for linguistic heathen, I think anyone who already speaks two languages very well and a third passably can’t be called a linguistic heathen even if they check out on language learning for the rest of their lives. They could be called other things, maybe, but not a linguistic heathen.

  5. I may be biased on this topic, since Linguistics is my minor and one of my (many) loves. But I’m with Kelli on this one – each language opens up so many doors to new experiences and relationships! (And they’re just plain fun.)

  6. makes me think of extra French lessons and still only a ‘C’ at O’levels…
    As a non-traveller (besides an exchange year in Argentina) I think it has to be taken in perspective – if you know you’re staying there for a substantial period of time (and I guess that’s relative) then it is definitely worthwhile learning to communicate…but temporary locations to be able to say the nicities should suffice. But it seems to me you’ll be there a while – so get out and about, have the lessons and take a leaf out of Mike’s book…just keep smiling and trying!

    • Wasn’t I with you for some of those extra french lessons??? Or maybe we each suffered alone. Were you in Mrs Madgzoub’s class??? I have no idea if I spelled that right now, but that’s the name I remember. And I don’t remember many names of my high school teachers.

      We’ll be here at least two years. You’re right, whether or not that counts as substantial is relative. But I’ll be showing up to next Monday’s lesson (this Thursday canceled due to planned elephant riding – long story) with good will (I hope :))

  7. Yes – we were in Mrs Madzjoub’s class together and I recall almost getting thrown in the fishpond one April Fools Day – purely for sitting next to you (or at least that’s how I remember it!)…our extra French lessons were with someone from the church who had just had a baby but no idea of her name…
    Two years – I think you’ll be pretty fluent.

    • Ha ha haaaa… I thought so. I don’t remember the fishpond though. I mean, now that you mention it I do recall something about a fishpond, and various other April Fools Day pranks (she was a good sport, was she not?) but I do not recall you being the victim.

      As for extra french lessons… wasn’t it someone who had quite a story behind her? Hadn’t her first husband been shot in a routine border stop a couple of years earlier for no real reason? I can’t remember her name either. Grrr… I was 16. You’d think some of this would have stuck.

  8. Oh dear… yes… I think this will be me too. I have the benefit of growing up in Indonesia, so that comes naturally. My husband is an American the grew up in England, so he has no natural second language, but he picks things up easily and has Greek and Hebrew and Spanish and bits of Indonesian and German in his back pocket. He’s so excited to move and learn a language. I refuse to start until I know for sure where we’re going – I’m not going to waste this effort!

    • It’s interesting isn’t it? Watching the passion with which some people advocate learning a new language at any opportunity I suspect that some people are wired to be passionate about learning languages – they view every new language as a giant, interesting puzzle and they just LOVE working on that puzzle the way that I love curling up with a good book. I tend to think of myself as a fairly passionate person, and I certainly love the English language, but this particular passion for foreign languages just hasn’t caught fire within me yet. For me it mostly still is more effort than joy.

  9. I love living in Lao and trying to learn the language, but find that, as an English teacher in the capital, my fellow teachers, my students, and most of my good Lao friends always want to speak English! Good for me, but bad for my language. I have basic survival language but few conversational skills! But, like in your story, the excitement and encouragement Lao give when you try makes me want to keep trying! Don’t give up!

    • Thanks Stephanie, yesterday’s lesson was canceled due to our unscheduled trip to hospital in Bangkok, but we’ll be back in “class” in Laos soon enough. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Lisa, I love this blog topic! I’m in the midst of studying Italian at the moment (which I’m sure isn’t nearly as tough as Lao!)—as I plan to move to Italy next year. I felt myself nodding in agreement as I read through all of Kelli’s reasons as to why learning language is awesome! Mostly the part about trying to be respectful of that culture —and also wanting to be able to understand and be understood. To sit around a bunch of people having interesting conversations and not be able to participate would drive me crazy!!!!

    Though I’m about to leave next week to visit my sister who’s teaching English in Korea–then make a quick hop over to Japan. I’m excited but don’t speak a lick of Korean or Japanese other than “hello”. Though I did print up a cheat sheet for myself yesterday that contains the question (in Japanese) that I will find most important while I’m there, “Do you have a menu in English?” 🙂 I’m interested to see what happens as we travel (without knowledge of the language) and how that affects us. I think of it as a fun little social experiment on my family.

    But I think a large part of linguistics really depends on what you enjoy. For some people languages are fun, and for others, more work. Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll get the important things down! If nothing else, my roommate who lived in Ghana for while says she always tries to learn how to say : Hello, Goodbye, I love you, thank you, God bless you, and the food is delicious–wherever she goes. I think that’s a good start 🙂

    • Well, it sounds as if you’ve got some SUPER exciting pots on the boil in your life miss kira, I look forward to tracking with you via facebook. Enjoy Korea – I see you’re there already. Lovely to hear from you.

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