Last night, I went over to BYU’s German house and we watched Das Leben Der Anderen or The Lives of Others. By the way, it is to be understood that this is a film, and I didn’t go to the German house to watch other people just live their lives. It’s always a joy for me to watch a German film and be able to understand more and more of what they’re saying, without having to look at the subtitles. What’s even more fun is to look at the subtitles and realize that it is never really direct translation, and how differently each language chooses to capture and express an idea.
I remember looking through a children’s German vocabulary book once and seeing that next to a picture of a seahorse it said “das Seepferdchen” which literally translates to little ocean pony. I almost laughed out loud and I thought it was so cute that Germans take things so literally, then I realized that seahorse and ocean-pony are equally adorably literal, and it made me wonder what joy I’ve been missing in the potential discoveries in English that I’ve just taken for granted because I’ve spoken it all my life. After being in German mode where I want to say so much and am capable of saying so little, I always come back to my understanding and handle on the very complex English language and can’t get over what a miracle it is that we can construct language and communicate one with another at all.
I’m auditing Thai 101 this semester and though I’ve taken very abbreviated language training in languages besides German, I’ve never delved into one at the college level. Unfortunately, because I’m auditing (ergo, I get no grade for the class) if I’m not quite done with a scholarship application, or anything comes up in my life where something’s gotta give, Thai is always the first thing to go. I hadn’t been to that class in about a week, and when I finally came back on Wednesday, they were worlds ahead of me and I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll ever catch up.
Despite being so far behind though, it amazed me as they were Top Thuan-ing (review) how much of it I could understand, and what I could draw from the few words that I do remember from the days of old when I actually attended the class. It blew my mind a little that when I heard this language on Anna and the King (if that was even really Thai or if they had some crazy version that was actually supposed to be Siamese), I couldn’t even imagine how to separate one word from another, and now I’m starting to understand even the tones and construction and how that affects the meaning.
I’m crazy about languages, and I’d like to learn every one, but there are three or four that are priorities to me. Though I have the wonderful resource of BYU language classes (the highest number of credits of almost any course on this campus), I’m not sure how to proceed, nor do I know why I want it so badly. I watch The Blind Sunflowers and come away knowing that I need to learn Spanish. I watch The Lives of Others and come away knowing I need to become really proficient in German. I come home from Jerusalem desiring to dive into Arabic.
But why? I suppose in some ways it’s cool to pull out your foreign language resume to impress other people and be the kind of person that only a monk or a priest could beat out for number of languages learned. That kind of commitment and work (particularly since I don’t just pick up new languages like some people) would be immense. Why do I seek the stress and frustration it would inevitably add to my life?
When I say a word, let’s pick one I say a lot, love, then the word leaves my mouth and enters your brain, penetrates the labyrinth therein, passes through every memory you have of love or lack of love, and you nod saying that you understand.
The word constitutes a different path and set of memories in my brain than it does in yours, but when you nod, I feel understood. That feeling of understanding and the spiritual communion of being on the same page is a transient one, but what I live for. I want to live for it in Technicolor. I want to find that connection with people, the world over. I want to speak and express and listen and understand and nod until the whole world is nodding with me. The first act I feel compelled to take, is the statement I’ll make by agreeing to step into their shoes rather than asking them to step into mine.