Tag Archives: learning new language

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?]