I can handle Hinglish – the Indian version of Spanglish – without a problem. I’ve got all that slang down. I’m comfortable with about any accent you can throw at me – a neeful thing indeed when your main social interactions are with a bunch of international grad students and professors who are more comfortable with equations than English. And you’d be surprised at how well I can parse together body language, tone, and the occasional English word in order to understand the conversation as a whole. Unfortunately, these skills, impressive though they might be, don’t cut it when what you really need to do is buckle down and learn a foreign language. This is something I suck at.
Yesterday I discussed all the great reasons you ought to be studying the native language of your partner. Today I’m focusing on why I haven’t yet achieved fluency in Aditya’s native language, Bengali, despite all those great reasons – and what I’m doing about it.
The Asian Playground and German Dreams
Growing up, I always wished I could speak another language or three fluently. I wanted it so bad, in fact, that I ran off to Germany when I was 17 to realize this dream. You see, in high school, I was one of exactly three people in my “hang-out group” of about thirty five friends who wasn’t at least bilingual. Not only did they get dumplings, sushi, and Pocky in their lunch bags, but they could slip in and out of another language with ease. I was so jealous. And, yeah, there were a lot of East Asian immigrant where I grew up – Club Fair Day featured a series of martial arts shows and at least three varieties of spring rolls for sale. Even the other white kids didn’t stand by me in solidarity of monolingualism: several were Jewish, and my high school boyfriend, Sasha, had spent his formative years in Russia. (His super-nice mom would always try to stuff me Slavic goodies while talking cheerfully away in Russian. High school me? Utterly intimidated.)
At the time it seemed completely unfair – here I was, struggling to learn what gender a bus was in German (male), and they just got a language scot-free because of their particular parents. So I concocted an elaborate plan where I would graduate a bit early from high school, delay starting college by a semester, and spend nearly a year working in Germany and traveling around Europe. Surprisingly, it all worked out, and I ended up a KLM flight to Hamburg when I was 17 to try my hand working as Au-Pair. That meant I was basically an unexperienced live-in teenage nanny – the family that hired me was either insane, or could sense my charming personality from halfway around the world. Nine months later I was back in the US and dreaming completely in German. Finally fluent in something!
Bengali? That’s Indo-European, right?
By the time I met Aditya I had forgotten all my high school language woes. I didn’t remember how difficult it was to grind through a vocabulary list, to work with grammar that isn’t intuitive, to convince my mouth to make sounds that English never required. And that’s like, five new sounds – German isn’t that different from English. So I was pathetically optimistic about my ability to learn his native language once we started getting serious – after all, Bengali is a part of the Indo-European language family, just like English & German. No tonal sounds to worry about? Piece of cake.
…Right. Let’s just say that I can barely hear the difference in a lot of sounds, let alone reproduce them.
Of course, we’ve only gotten to this point after a year-long debate concerning whether I should focus on learning Hindi or Bengali. The debate isn’t technically over – there’s major pros and cons on both sides – but it’s tabled for now, and I’m focusing on Bengali.
What works, and what doesn’t – at least for me
By now, I’ve figured out some things that help along the language learning process. You’d think that having an at-hand native speaker would make things easier, but you’d be surprised.
First, I will always believe that the best way to learn a language is to go spend some time in a country where it’s spoken – as long as you’re willing to work at the language while you’re there. Sadly, you can’t learn anything by osmosis or I’d be fluent in 8 or 9 Sanskritic languages from sleeping next to Aditya every night. (I was jealous enough of my high school classmates – learning that his 6+ years of studying Sanskrit and army-brat nomadic childhood equipped Aditya with the ability to speak many languages was so irritating.)
Of course, not everyone can just pick up and fly off to another country just to learn a language like a silly teenage girl, so I think the second-best thing to do is take a proper language course at a local university, if offered. Foreign language professors have years of training and experience to draw on when teaching, while your partner likely doesn’t. This really does make a big difference, particularly when you’re studying a language that is quite dissimilar to English. Like galaxie, I’ll be auditing a Hindi course next year, supposing I successfully pass my comprehensive exams. Of course, many languages are uncommon enough to not be taught anywhere – at least not anywhere close to you.
In that case you’ve got to go with the third option: gathering up every resource you can get to help you in your independent study. Rosetta Stone software is amazing, although the only Indian language they offer is Hindi. Get some cds if you’re a aural learner (I’m not), books if you’re a visual learner, or both if you’re a rich learner. Use your partner as another resource, but not as the only resource – too often a native speaker can’t easily explain why the language is the way it is. I fall into this category for learning Bengali, and use a book out of the wonderful Teach Yourself series. Aditya serves mainly to correct my pronunciation (in between his bursts of laughter at it) and correct my handwriting (which is luckily “no worse” than my “horrible English handwriting”). This system works pretty well, especially when I allow myself to taunt him with long German words he has no hope of saying correctly.
What if you’re stuck in the no man’s land of no published language learning resources, either in traditional media or on the internet? Well, your fourth and final choice is to depend on your partner entirely for language instruction. In this case, what I would suggest is that your partner find a book from the “Teach Yourself” series that covers the closest-related language to your target language, and then translate all the lessons into his language for you to learn from. (Note: this won’t work if you’re trying to learn Basque.) It’ll mean more work for both of you, but it’s a lot better than just picking up bits and pieces of a language as you go along.
Whenever I get frustrated learning Bengali, I plan on going back to yesterday’s list to remind myself why it’s worth it. All of the reasons I listed are valid for me, but I particularly want to know Aditya’s native language so that I can talk easily with his mother (whose English is actually quite good, but she’s more comfortable with Bengali). Also, I want any future kids of mine to be the cool kids on the playground: (store-bought) samosas in their lunch bags and awesome language skills.