I ALWAYS wanted to learn a second language. Unfortunately, though, that goal just sits on a shelf collecting dust and mocks me when I muster up enough strength to conquer it. Over the years, I commited to learning Spanish, but somehow, someway, I always get sidetracked. Because, well, life. I started and stopped Spanish lessons so often that I can’t even keep track anymore.

I mean, I do live in Chicago where thirty percent of the population are either Hispanic or Latino. It’s not like I’m trying to learn Uzbek and can’t find anyone with whom to practice my language skills (for those of you who don’t know, Carl  studied the ever useful Uzbek while at Indiana University. Love you, Honey!). It should be easy for me to learn Spanish at an Intermediate level.

The vast majority of my students at Dominican are bilingual in either Spanish or Polish. I’m surrounded by people who are willing to speak Spanish with me. Teaching bilingual students with different cultural backgrounds has taught me how much I seem to be missing by only knowing one language. Fluency in another language adds to understanding the culture at a different level than what a novice like me can attain. Maybe it’s the slang and jokes that I miss out on. Or the traditions. Or the superstitions. Either way, I have every reason to learn Spanish in order to relate to my students more in Chicago. I also have every reason to learn Romanian to relate to my students more in Bucharest. But is it worth it if you can only speak at a beginner’s level? Given all of the reasons that I have to learn a second language both in Chicago and in Bucharest has prompted me to ask:

To what extent can you fully embrace a culture if you’re not fluent in the language? 

And so here I sit in Bucharest envious of all the polyglots that I encounter wondering what I’m missing out on. Hell, our babysitter is in the midst of learning her seventh language. And they’re all different alphabets. There’s a part of me that is envious of that  level of passion for languages.

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Since arriving, I have picked up a few phrases and words but am far from fluency in Romanian. So many people speak English here that I’m not pushed to learn more. For reference, Carl also wrote a post about this aspect as well. Romanians are so kindhearted that when I’m struggling to say something in Romanian, they will often smile, help me pronounce the word, and then continue the conversation in English.

Other times, I’ve learned that ignorance is bliss. While waiting in line at the Immigration Office for 3.5 hours I found out that the people behind us were saying mean things about the group I was waiting with. It was a silly squabble about the order of the line. After standing on our feet for so long tempers flaired and the folks behind us started saying inappropriate things about my group. I had no idea what they were saying, and to be honest, I kinda liked it. The folks I was with, on the other hand, are fluent in Romanian and were stifling their anger. The looks on their faces were enough to prompt me to ask what was going on.

In many ways, being this inarticulate is the first time in my life that I feel like I can relate more to an infant more than to an adult. (Based on my humor, you would assume it’s a 12 year old boy, but that’s a different story for a different day.) In a way, Isaac and I are kindred spirits. He’s in the beginning stages of language acquisition for both Romanian and English. We both have the simple words and phrases down. Slang and complicated sentence structures? Not so much. We live in a land where ignorance is bliss because we can fill in the blanks with whatever the hell we want. We’ll hear one key word, understand the context, and then comply with the request (for the most part).

Some days are better than others regarding fluency for both Isaac and me. When he arrives home from day care for the evening AND he’s in a good mood, he easily points to objects around the house and names them. On other days, he throws himself on the rug and cries when we ask him questions. I can’t help but relate.

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However, we’re also realizing how much he actually understand versus how obstinate he is.  It turns out he’s more obstinate than inarticulate. *Sigh* Maybe I’m the same. Have I been hiding behind specious barriers for no reason other than fear? It’s totally possible, but it’s also possible it’s something else as well.

I intended to enroll in a Romanian class as soon as I got here to help with my Romanian proficiency. I initially thought that it would help with my research, basic day-to-day conversations, and even more importantly help me conquer my goal of learning a second language. Even though I intended to do so, I haven’t actually enrolled in a course yet. And the reason why is because I am not totally convinced how much it will actually help me for the few remaining months that I’m here.

My doubts stem from a conversation I had with a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer- someone who completed the full 27 months in the Peace Corps). I was in Cuzco, Peru exploring the city and she and I were in the same tour group. She just completed her service in Uruguay and was traveling through the rest of South America before she made her way back to the States. At the time, volunteering for the Peace Corps was a goal of mine that was derailed due to wishful thinking. I will leave it at that. But because the PC was a goal of mine, I took immediate interest in this woman. She accomplished something I was only dreaming about. I needed to know more about her and her experience. I wanted to hear all the good things that happened to her. How amazing her life became after she completed her service.

Instead of hearing all of the good things that occurred during her time as a volunteer, I heard about all of the bad and ugly things we don’t want to hear about. She was sexually harassed regularly. She lived in a remote village and missed speaking English with other expats so she spent 2 lonely years in a country that she couldn’t relate to. And the point that stuck with me the most: she explained that her language acquisition was so poor that after two years she could speak as well as a 5 year old. Because of this, she found it nearly impossible to implement her project. I recognize this is not the norm for most PCV’s but after consulting several blogs, I discovered that it’s pretty common. Recognizing this limitation stuck with me all these years later.

So back to my question, do you have to be fluent in another language to fully embrace the culture?

My answer: Yeah, probably to *fully* understand it, but not really. Language is one aspect of culture, but more importantly, it’s an amalgamation of implicit thoughts that are difficult to articulate such as values and beliefs. You have to live somewhere for a lot longer than one year to fully embrace the culture. Speaking from experience, having lived in Chicagoland for 4 years I still find myself second guessing when someone’s being “nice” versus “Midwest nice,” (the latter being a passive aggressive form of politeness) and I speak the language fluently. There are some cultural differences that you can only understand after experiencing them for years and years. No one can really sit down and explain them.

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In the mean time, it’s nice that we have Google Translate to help my communication efforts in Romania. And my amazing colleagues and students who patiently explain things to me and answer all of my weird questions. Add to the fact that Romanians prefer to have their movies, TV shows, and radio stations in English which means that the vast majority of the population speaks English fluently. I don’t really have to speak the language fluently to communicate with others. It helps, but it’s not a necessary requirement.

I hope that at the end of my Fulbright experience I won’t take the raw edge that the RPVC took when I’m asked about my experience. I doubt I will, but in the mean time, I should probably book my Romanian language lessons so that I can at least decipher what my toddler is trying to tell me. If, for nothing else, at least I’ll be on the same language level as my one and a half year old.

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