Sunday, December 20, 2009

The War of the Words

Tonight I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, thinking a bit about my life. Oddly enough, I often think in three different languages when I can't sleep. My mind wanders endlessy through my past experiences, my hopes for the future, and random scenarios where I am a super-hero. And all in English, Spanish, or French. But one thing I have noticed is that I feel completely different when I speak Spanish than when I speak French.

When I speak Spanish, I feel like my heart is connected to my words. I feel what I say, and I say (or try to say) what I feel. Unfortunately, that process takes a lot of effort. The ability to speak Spanish comes at great effort, even when I was living in Spain. I was constantly thinking--conjugating verbs, using new vocabulary, seeing every word written down in my mind before it left my mouth. Sort of like a computer.

But when I speak French, it's completely different. I feel so unattached, that often I begin speaking and don't realize that I've started to say something that is too complicated to finish. So, I'll jump in on a conversation without hesitating, but will end up not finishing my phrase, or having to say it two or three times to get my point across. I don't feel like I accurately communicate my emotions in French.

My question is this: Does not feeling as connected to French automatically mean that I speak better Spanish? That's what I thought at first, but now I think differently. While I was in Spain, I remember thinking that I felt more Latino than American. I fit in better with my spanish speaking friends than I did with the Americans. I felt new avenues of communication, the emotive ones, in particular, open up, and I ran through them. The result was that when I didn't feel those same things while starting to learn French, I assumed that I didn't like French as much. Makes sense, right?

Oh, but language learning is a very complicated process, and one that involves every part of the human being--soul, body, and spirit. When I started learning French, I had something under my belt that I didn't have when I started Spanish, that is the experience of having already learned a foreign language. When I began Spanish, everything was new to me. Every word was vibrant and full of meaning, and each new phrase gave me a new, fuller understanding of reality. But when I started French, I had already experienced that process. Now that I was learning a third language, the words weren't as fresh, and the phrases were a lot less meaningful. I had romanticized Spanish in a way that I couldn't do with French. It would have been dishonest. Like going on a date with a girl and pretending that she didn't have problems like every other girl you've dated. Entering into French with another language learning experience behind me left me unimpressed, not that it isn't a beautiful language, but after all it is just a language like all others.

Second, French resembles English a great deal. And, in fact, I am just beginning to learn how much of the english language is borrowed from French. What this means is that I don't have to think nearly as hard to understand and speak French as I do Spanish. The sentence structure and words are close enough that most of the time I can take an older English word (one that is old enough that most English speaking people wouldn't recognize it) and Frenchify it in order to say what I want. Think King James Audio Bible read by Pepe Le Pew. The easier it is to speak, the less I have to think.

My last thought is really a combination of the previous two. Which language is more natural to me? Spanish, where I FEEL like I can communicate more clearly because of the effort I put into speaking, or, French, which is so close to my native tongue that I speak without thinking? If I were backed up into a corner I would say both, mostly because I really love Spanish, but in reality I think the answer would have to be French. I mean, how many of us think before we speak in our native language? How many of us say, "I really put my foot in my mouth" and feel the weight of those words because we are so concentrated on understanding the grammar of the sentence? None of us. That just means, "I said something stupid," or, "I shouldn't have said that." When looked at in this light, French is a much more natural language for me.

In Spain, I felt like I found a new aspect of 'me,' through learning the language. Here in France, I am learning that I'm the same old Mike Gorski, I just speak a little bit of a few extra languages. And my English is getting worse.

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