One of our restrictions here is that when we want to choose a new book to read, for a bit of pre-sleep slow down for example, we can’t pop down to the local Massangulo book cafe, or library, or even buy anything online. We’re stuck with what we have on the bookshelf. So it’s not unusual to find one of us at 9:30pm standing in front of the bookcase looking through our little collection for something we may have gone past before on our numerous other scans. I do find myself picking up books that look a little bit girly and considering giving them a run. Luckily my lovely wife isn’t really into cheesy christian romance (not that theres anything wrong with that…hmmm) so I’m not at too much risk of going drastically wrong – and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised!
So this is a post that has been triggered by one of these books. “When in French” by Lauren Collins is a book that chronicles the experience of an American woman married to a French bloke. They started their relationship in the states in her linguistic mother tongue and the book picks them up freshly moved to Geneva. It’s not so much a cross-cultural-lingual love story but more of a reflection of relationships between bilingual people and the effects language, or lack there of, has on relationships. It particularly reflects on the power differential that is at play when one person is in their first language and the other not, and how that can switch with location.
Im only half way through this book, and the protagonist is currently learning French to try and reduce the language gap in their relationship. This book has already had me reflecting on what has happened to me by living in a multilingual setting for the past 5 years.
My first reflection is a realisation that I have had for a fair while since being here – I’m not a great language student! I see others here that relish the challenge of new words and find the jigsaw of grammar fascinating and inspiring. My brilliant wife learns language like a pro – she works hard at it, but you can tell she is a natural… she even remembers the times and place where she learnt specifically words for the first time! My life previous to being here was one of an academic. I was an expert in my specific field and could get by in many situations by being one of the smart people in the room. This is not the case here. I have had so many servings of language humble pie here I am humble pie obese. I find language learning a hard slog and grammar a continual minefield that seems as perplexing as ever! I guess this isn’t such a bad thing – we can all do with situations to bring us back a peg or too, and I keep reminding myself that despite the struggle I do learn language, its just takes more time than others. Some days though, after 5 years of the same struggle, it can get a bit old to be reminded of your shortcomings so frequently.
The other more subtle realisation is that learning language in situ where there are no English speakers really changes your personality. Normally I love talking. But here, more often than not I find myself sitting on the edge of conversations either not fully getting what’s going on, or just not having the capacity to express what I want in the conversation. I end up making friends with people patient enough to understand the language journey I’m on, or savvy enough to understand that my current ability to express myself is not the sum total of who I am. Maybe most people just think Im a bit simple?! This being said, those kind of people are often the best, and I am blessed to have some great friendships with people here, both in Portuguese and Chiyawo.
What has happened I think is I have moved along the Extrovert-Introvert continuum. This is not just contained to the times that I am using Portuguese or Chiyawo, but extends to moments in English. I am much more content to have time to myself – but also discovered that I actually need that kind of time more than I used to. Maybe it’s just getting older but I think there is certainly some interaction between being culturally and linguistically poor for a significant period of time and your own sense of self. I’ve hear other people out here have a similar experience – they are no longer as extroverted as they used to be.
Whats my take away here? I’m not sure really, just some ramblings from an Aussie bloke on a cold mozambican afternoon. Acquiring new languages and cultures is a tough gig – but those relationships that are won through the hard graft are meaningful and deep. We have had some profound experiences here with our new cross-cultural mates. Most days though I do still wish that in some supernatural way I could wake up and speak beautiful Chiyawo – but I think in some other way, God has a way of bringing beauty, complexity, and newness through our broken and failed attempts in this world.