GY: Languages

Il mio italiano non è il meglio. È forse quello che la mia terza-elementare inglese sembrava — frammentato e timido. ¹

Ironically, my Chinese is even worse. I don’t even remember how to write simplified characters.

My collection of French words is pitiful, save for “bonjour/au revior,” “le pain,” (forever scarred by the puns) and “le lait.”

Don’t get me started on German and Swahili and sign language.

I’ve always stood in awe at those who have little trouble conversing in diverse cultural settings. Once, in a department store in Milan, I met a salesman who spoke English, Italian, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, and a touch of Korean. He transitioned between international costumers with ease and sold handbags with confidence, while other salesmen shot glances of despair at their own customers who eventually slunk off.

It’s easy to sit in an Italian café and expect the waiter to know what “a glass of iced tea” means. It’s easy to point at vegetables in a supermarket and use frantic hand gestures to tell the butcher how much meat you want. But when it boils down to the bare bones, without knowing the native words of a land, you feel isolated, homesick, and grumpy because the butcher gave you ten pounds of beef instead of one.

Why, then, do we tend to reside in the comforts of our own tongues? Is it the guttural difficulty of foreign pronunciations? Is it the cultural ignorance? Is it the long-lasting excuse, “I don’t have the time or the need to learn this”?

You might not find yourself in Italy or China or Kenya anytime soon, so perhaps none of this matters. One can huddle in her own cottage of familiarity and never interact beyond the fringes of the known. But this world is too vast and too rich to ignore. Language is the winding fiber of human connections, and I intend to dive into the core mechanism of this phenomenon, no matter how strange or difficult it may be.

Hence, a slightly insane goal for this year:

  • fluency in Italian: listening, speaking, reading, and writing ²
  • fluency in Chinese: listening, speaking, reading
  • basics of French & German: simple questions, answers (enough for casual conversation)
  • basics of Swahili: rudimentary phrases (speaking/reading)
  • basics of ASL³: alphabet and helpful gestures
  • (doubt there will be room/time for this but: basics of Japanese)

All of that while expanding my English vocabulary! (No time to waste, then).


¹ Translation: my Italian isn’t the best. It is perhaps what my third-grade English sounded like — fragmented and shy.

² For comparisons sake, the level of fluency I’m aiming for is about the average 13-14 year old’s vocabulary — not highly advanced but at least solid.

³ American Sign Language.

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