Stirring Up Passion

Alexandra Méndez advocates falling in love with language as the route to mastery

We do so many things halfway these days — or as one would say in Spanish, a medias. We half pay attention to the road because we’re talking on the phone. We half listen to our phone call because we’re surfing the web. We half pick up Italian in Italy because we keep our gadgets running in English. We half pay attention to the article we’re writing because a new email just came in.

To honor these distractions is deadly for the learning of a language. Language teachers have long said that total immersion is the best way to learn. Today’s technology complicates and undermines total immersion more than ever. Students studying abroad must make a constant effort to fly solo while in the host country to shed the tethers of the program, the comfort of speaking with people from their own country, the urge to Skype friends and family — and plunge headfirst into the deep waters of the unknown. Is that too much to ask? It doesn’t need to be so difficult.

Mere competence can be attained in the shallow end even with a closed outlook and a constant resistance to the language. If a person’s goal is to understand the basics and be able to “get by” either as a tourist or a would-be savvy businessperson, then he or she will never master the rolled r’s in Spanish or the soft fricative s’s in Rio Carioca Portuguese. In this line of thinking, there is no reason to go beyond a certain point. In a global economy where we learn Portuguese because Brazil is thriving despite the global economic downturn, and we learn English because it is the lingua franca of international transactions, many businesspeople have defined language in utilitarian terms — as a skill and an asset to be exploited. As Tsedal Neeley put it in her May article in the Harvard Business Review, “Global Business Speaks English,” the businessperson continuing to learn a language past a certain level of proficiency (which she defines as 15,000 words in English) “may begin to experience diminishing returns on their language efforts.” For her, there is no need to learn a language more than halfway.
What Neeley fails to realize is that language is so much more than a line on a résumé and a trick to be pulled out to gain a competitive advantage. Language encompasses patterns of thought, living histories, rhythms of life. To reduce language to a thing to be used is to disrespect it entirely and discredit everything that it is. Language is how people communicate the nuances of their thoughts, the way they socialize, the way they live. To disrespect a language is to disrespect its people.

The key to pushing past proficiency and half-learning to willingly dive into the deep waters is to be open — mentally, physically, and emotionally — to whatever mysteries we may find. Only then can one truly take the plunge and enjoy it. Indeed, there is a turning point in the pursuit of mastery that can only occur when the language student begins to enjoy it, when he or she beats away the fear of speaking up and instead decides to just fall in love with the language, the culture, the people, the different way of laughing, the taste of the breakfast, the smell of the new morning air. When we fall in love with a person, our focus is undivided. It requires no effort for us to think of that person at all times, to be always aware of their position in the room, to recognize their silhouette out of the corner of our eye just by the particular way they move their shoulders when they walk. When we allow ourselves to fall in love with the language, the immense effort required to learn it becomes not only more palatable, but infinitely more pleasurable and rewarding. We begin to aspirate the hard c’s in Tuscan Italian because watermelon tastes better when it’s pronounced cohomero. We purse our lips to say “eh-uh” in Parisian French because it sounds like the bustle on the boulevards. Only when we fall in love can the transformative experiences occur: the back-and-forth about movies with an Italian in a Tuscan park, the conversations with locals while watching the sun set over the Alhambra, the deeper understanding of tea from sipping with new friends in the Moroccan desert. Then the deep waters are not so scary because they house the beautiful object of our love.

Just as no beloved person is perfect but we love them anyway and just as we keep on loving them when they hurt us, we must continue loving the language even when it has been spat into the tired faces of refugees, or when it reeks of urine in the subway, or when it skitters momentarily out of reach under the cover of inaccessible slang. We must remember what Wendy told Xavier as he boarded a train to cheat on her in the great celebration of love and languages in the 2005 film Russian Dolls: “I know you’re not always perfect. I know you have tons of problems, defects, imperfections… but who doesn’t? It’s just that I prefer your problems. I’m in love with your imperfections.”

I am advocating a pursuit of not fluency, but instead mastery. This is because fluency is an impossible goal in any language, including one’s first tongue. Fluency is perfection, as unattainable and thus unreal as paradise on earth. Mastery, however, is something beautiful and imperfect that we can all strive for. In this world of instantaneous tweets and lol’s and brb’s, mastery is in short supply in many areas. There is no single goalpost at which mastery has been attained, no buoy in the water warning us to swim no farther. It is in the pursuit of mastery that we prove our worth as human beings. For ultimately, what is life but a great journey, and what is our duty but to make the most of it?

The process of mastering a language should not be thought of as entirely rational. You cannot fall in love rationally. I am forever grateful to my Italian teachers for understanding that beyond the grammar and the vocabulary there is a whole symphony of sounds and colors that we miss out on if we remain preoccupied with the rational and the practical. In her pixie cut and sparkly eye-shadow, my first Italian teacher introduced our class to Pascuale lo Squalo (Pascuale the Shark), a stuffed hand puppet who made us laugh as he taught us lessons out of the textbook. In another class we read fairytales and made short films reacting to them, and I shall never forget that prezzemolo refers to the parsley that pregnant women were always eating in these stories, nor that eppure means “nonetheless” because while Pinocchio was just a wooden marionette, eppure he could walk.
Language learning does require memorization, and the setting of academia does lend itself to partial language learning. But for real learning to occur, the kind that sends students into the deep end on their own accord and brings them back to the surface with a confident mastery of the language, students must do far more than cram with flashcards and memorize tense tables. They need to let go of what’s rational in order to fall in love with the language so that they cannot get enough of it; so that they feverishly download movies and songs in the language and begin to follow the soccer team. Teachers can facilitate this process by presenting it not simply as an academic endeavor, but rather as an opening to a new universe in which to cook, eat, taste, sing, dance, cry, kiss, and love. By doing so, teachers can coax mastery from their students, not just half-hearted attempts at learning.

The world will benefit from an increased depth of focus. We are afraid to get more than our feet wet earn more than we can get from an app. Businesses can keep a pulse on their humanity by encouraging employees to learn a language in depth, and to love it, to forgive its pesky neuter nouns, and love its poetry. Language is sublime; many have said that it is what makes us human. One might argue that it is our capacity for love that makes us human. I think that it is both, and that one is not possible without the other. We should remember our humanity and when we embark upon the beautiful and frustrating process of learning a language, we should set out to master it.

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

Russian Dolls. Dir. Cédric Klapisch. Perf. Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly. IFC Films, 2005. DVD.
Neeley, Tsedal. “Global Business Speaks English.” Harvard Business Review. May 2012: Online Access.

Alexandra Méndez is a student of History and Literature in the field of Latin America at Harvard College. She speaks English, Spanish, French, and Italian and has studied abroad in Italy and Spain. On campus she has been active in the international community, welcoming visiting students to campus and encouraging undergraduates to study abroad. She writes for various campus publications and is pursuing a career in creative writing. She may be reached at [email protected].