Villablino

In January I had the privilege of traveling to Spain to teach a linguistics course in Villablino, León. I lived in Granada for one year while I was studying Spanish in university, and being in Spain felt like being home again. Nevertheless, Northern Spain has a very different culture from the South.

Villablino is a smaller mining town, nestled in the mountains and practically forgotten except by those who know it’s there. Skiing is the main attraction for outsiders; there are no must-see historic sites or ancient cathedrals. When I was there I couldn’t even find a postcard.

Yes dismissing the town would be a mistake. It’s a special mix of city and country; there are about four main streets with plenty of shops and stores, but it’s easy to wander out of the town and into the hills. Stone walls guard horses and donkeys, but I’ve seen sheep wandering freely on a deserted hillside road. A stork nests on top of the stone bell tower of a church. A particularly warm year, winter was an interesting mix of damp rainy days, warm sunshine, and heavy snowfall. The fate of backyard gardens would look grim if it were not for the hearty kale plants growing everywhere, their thick leaves a splash of green peeking out from under the snow.

When I was in university, I learned that Spain was home to four languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. The reality is far more complex with obscure little Romance languages scattered throughout the Northern mountains, isolation and time creating a perfect recipe for linguistic variation. The Laciana valley (where Villablino is located) is home to a language called Pachueso. Essentially moribund (linguistic speak for “practically dead”), there are next to no native speakers, only those who attempt to keep it alive through classes, public readings, songs, and conversations. It is sometimes sprinkled into the Spanish here in surprising ways. The majority of the cafés in Villablino have their open/closed signs in Pachueso instead of Spanish. My upstairs neighbor speaks it, and I had the privilege of listening to him read a story in the language. The story had a particularly rustic theme; it was about a boy who got chased up a tree by a wild boar and ended up arriving home late at night and being locked out. When my neighbor read the story, it seemed similar to Spanish, but not quite intelligible. It sounded as old as the mountains, a forgotten language that rolled off his tongue like water from a hidden spring.

Although the weather was unpredictable, it was generally cold and I was grateful for our heating system in the apartment. We had a coal stove. That’s right. Coal. Since Villablino is a mining town, coal is a relatively cheap resource and has been used to heat houses in the Laciana valley for years. It takes some maintenance. Hauling coal from the basement to the apartment in buckets every couple of days, scraping the grate from below daily so that it wouldn’t get clogged with ashes, emptying the fallen ashes once a week, and—if the fire happened to die—restarting it with newspaper and wood before adding more coal. It was labor-intensive, but I liked it. I felt like I was taking part of a tradition far more interesting and rich than simply pushing a button on a thermostat.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Spain feel like home to me. I have lived abroad in other places for just as long or longer without having the same feeling. And despite having never been to Villablino and knowing no one before arriving, it still felt like home right away.

I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching linguistics in Spanish. It was a small class, but the students were eager to learn. I taught an introductory grammar course, covering the basics of morphology and syntax. The best part for me was investing in the students and seeing them grow in their linguistic skills. At the beginning of the course they did not know what morphemes were, and by the end they were writing grammar descriptions. These are students who are interested in serving across the world in linguistics, literacy and Bible translation. It will be exciting to see where they end up. I like thinking about how God brings people together for a certain time or season and then scatters them across the world. Yet the connection and the impact everyone has had on each other remain.

It was an intense time, as it was my first time teaching my own class. There was a steep learning curve for preparing materials and exercises, outlining lesson plans, writing and grading exams, and balancing all of that with day-to-day life. I taught three hours a day, five days a week, and did all my prep work and grading in the afternoons and evenings. Add processing everything in my second language to the mix, and it’s no wonder I was tired at the end of the day. But at no point during the course was I so stressed that I regretted coming, and although I was exhausted after several weeks of this rhythm, I always felt like it was worth the effort. I lit up when I got to explain complex ideas or when I tried to show how beautiful language could be. It was a great fit, and I hope to be back.

And now my life seems full of contrasts. There was snow on the ground when I left, but now I am sticky from the humidity in Cameroon. I felt so comfortable and confident in Spanish, and now I am speaking halting French, trying to remember the syllables that have become rusty from disuse. There are more transitions down the road, but I will enjoy the bright moments and thank God for His provision and His dreams for me, far better than what I could think up on my own.

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Music on the Page

I appreciate music in a way that extends beyond a symphony or concert. For me, each language has its own specific music, made up of a unique rhythm, different sounds, cadence and intonation. It is the music of a language that allows us to identify languages we hear but don’t speak; we know the people at the next table over in the restaurant are speaking Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, even if we don’t recognize the words.

I love learning things by ear, whether it be languages or music, because I feel like there is something that clicks when I can hear it in my head. Reading, on the other hand, is often more visual than auditory. However, this is not always the case.

A few months ago, I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If genius could be contained between two covers, I think I found it. The characters leapt off the page as the plot wound its way through hundreds of pages in a mere three days. A three day timeline in which we can live our whole lives. Aside from it being a brilliantly crafted novel, I think one aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the dialogue. The book takes place in Spain, and although one  character is American, he speaks fluent Spanish with the other characters. Although the book is written in English, Hemingway gives the dialogue a Spanish flavor by taking common expressions from Spanish and translating them literally. This gives a somewhat awkward drift to the dialogue, but allows it to flow in a different way, a way that works perfectly in another language. Thus, the reader feels as if they are reading in Spanish when they are actually reading in English. The melodies of two languages blend together.

My other music-moment came reading a French play called Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. It was the first full length book I’ve read in French that I actually enjoyed. The plot was daring and bold–a lackey in love with the queen! Revenge, intrigue, l’amour…the characters were complex and it was amazing to follow them through their trials and triumphs. But what I really loved was the language–written in Alexandrain (12 syllables per verse) with rhyming couplets, I could hear the music of the language, the sonority, the cadence and rhythms. I could hear it, even though it was written down. Reading a play such as Ruy Blas instead of a novel was easier for me because the form and structure were just as much a part of the beauty of the work as the words that were chosen. But now I am encouraged to start reading more in French; an entire body of literature has become just a little more accessible.

Looking at the written word abstractly, we see squiggles on page. Yet with each stroke of the keys, there is a sound attached to the letters, meaning linked to the words, syncopated, staccato or legato. Sometimes we read banalities; words are cheap and silence is golden.

Other times the melody breaks through the fog and we hear the beginnings of a symphony.

Threshold

I think it is impossible to learn another language without being completely changed. Something has shifted and we can no longer be who we once were. For we witness the opening of a world, when the planets align and we have access to new people, new cultures, new ideas. I walked through a threshold I didn’t know existed and I can’t find the way back. The road has melted before my very eyes, but even if I could find it again, I would not want to.

Plunder

I spent two weeks at home with my family over the holidays, eating great food, seeing close friends, and speaking an amazing amount of English. It was so relaxing that I had no idea how the transition back to Switzerland would be. But I was in for some surprises.

The first surprise was the words. For the first week, French words on signs began to pop out at me. The words weren’t even anything special except for the fact that I knew what they meant. There was a secret power in the knowing, as if I could place the word in my pocket to use later when I needed it. It was almost startling how vivid they became, little pieces of life strewn around the city that were ripe for the taking. I plundered the words, locked them away safe in my mind so that I could know. Not figure out, but know instinctively what they wanted to say.

It’s this instinct that allows me to know what words mean without translating them. I am surprised at how the words to the songs we sing in church touch my heart differently than they did even one month ago. They seem closer, more real. The words mean more now and are permeating every aspect of my life, even my dreams.

Of course, it helps that the words are really all around me. When I am in an English speaking country, it is easy to choose not to speak French. But here, I have no choice. There are people with whom I could not otherwise communicate unless I wrap my tongue around these strange syllables and take out the words I have locked away. And I am already learning again, every day.

Sometimes I still feel like I am speaking in code. It seems cryptic and difficult, yet this code is the primary means with which a people think, discuss and dream. And slowly, I am cracking it, using this code to become a little more like them, discerning more with every conversation. There are times when it is a struggle, and then other times where I am walking down the street and I catch myself thinking in French. Cryptic or comforting, foreign or familiar, it’s becoming a part of me in a way that makes me think that no matter what happens, I will never be the same.

Progress (finally)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about progress in language learning and how it is hard to be objective or to even “measure” progress at all.

Sometimes progress is not quantifiable. In immersion situations, the brain is constantly working to process the input heard and seen every day. There may be knowledge we don’t even realize we have, like knowing words without having remembered learning them. Or perhaps we understand different words, even without being able to spell them or repeat them on our own. Context is a great interpreter.

Today marks three months since I arrived in Switzerland to study French. While I don’t have any official tests or benchmarks to boast of, I can say that I’ve improved.

The first way I know is through comparison. When I think about what I can accomplish now versus my abilities in September, the change is drastic. When I first arrived, I was barely able to hold a conversation, and any discourse that took place was laden with awkward pauses, searching for words, and asking for repetition. Now I can understand almost everything spoken directly to me and can make myself understood without having to search for too many words. I still make mistakes, but they don’t usually cause communication to break down.

The second indicator is my own expectations. I used to be pleasantly surprised when I was able to hold a conversation without stumbling over my words. Now I expect it. The same for comprehension. Talking one-on-one has become easier, so I’ve turned my attention to understanding group conversations between native speakers (much faster and harder to follow). My expectations may be high, but this will help in the long run for learning well.

Still, it’s important to celebrate the little victories along the way. I may not always realize it, but I am learning more every day.

Exposé oral

Today I gave an oral presentation in class. 15 minutes for content with five minutes for questions. It was the longest presentation I’ve ever had to give in French, but I think it went well. I spoke about descriptive linguistics, how to analyze languages, and then gave everyone a chance to try it out with a data set from Swahili. Everyone seemed interested in the content, and I got compliments (in three languages) after class.

It was a good experience, especially since once I was up there, all the nervousness disappeared and I was able to communicate why I was excited about this topic. I love languages, and understanding them in terms of their phonological and grammatical systems makes sense to me. I feel like there is so much to explore within a language; it’s like opening up a good book and becoming absorbed in the story, even with all its twists and turns.

Of Broken Espresso Machines and Trilingualism

It wasn’t a good sign when the espresso machine at school was broken. 8am classes and a lack of coffee makes for grumpy students. My friend was particularly tired and put out by the lack of caffeine, so we made plans to go to the nearby bakery during the break in our writing class.

She brought two others with her, making me the only non-Argentine in the group. Normally a foreigner in the midst is a cause for people to speak French, but I told them they could speak Spanish if they wanted and I would listen. As we bought our coffee, I enjoyed listening to the lilting intonation of Argentine Spanish, so different from what I learned in Spain.

We walked back to the school building and were joined by another Argentine. They continued to talk, and I inserted the occasional comment. One girl asked if I could understand what they were saying. I told her that I could understand everything, but that I tended not to speak as much because I would mix up my Spanish with my French. She kindly told me how she did the same with French and English.

I was content to be a passive listener, but she then asked me why I was learning French. As I told her what I was going to be doing in Cameroon, it came out mostly in Spanish, but with every couple of words in French. The guys started smiling, not in a mean way, but in a way that I interpreted to say something to the effect of “You are so cute to be mixing up your languages right now.”

Normally when this happens, it’s an exercise in frustration and futility. I’ve studied Spanish formally for ten years, including a year abroad in Spain. You would think I would be able to speak it well on command. However, the context was all wrong. I am in the same building as my French classes, speaking to people with whom I normally speak in French. I was amazed that I could speak any Spanish at all. But even with the mixing of two languages, I could still express myself and get my meaning across. And instead of being frustrated, I was amazed at how much my French had a hold on my brain that it was coming quicker than my Spanish.

I spoke English later with some friends, filling in the third angle of the triangle. I think speaking all three languages today made me feel complete, as if all of me had found some means of expression not available in the other tongues. And while French has definitely been a struggle, I think today I began to love it a little more.

International Languages

I speak two languages, three if you count the French I’m learning now. It is the third language that gives me difficulty. Try as I might to express complex ideas or abstract thoughts, French always comes up short compared to my native tongue. When I am not sure how to explain my emotions, or show how much I care about people, or even leave a conversation without seeming rude, I struggle and fumble my way through. My difficulties in self-expression make me feel like I am living a sort of half-life. No matter what I say, people here will only be able to know half of me, the half that I can express in French. It’s worse than feeling like a child; I feel incomplete, like some fundamental piece of me has been stripped away.

But I realize that I also know some other languages, ones that don’t always require words and are international in whatever culture I may find myself. The first language is food. While I can’t claim to be an excellent cook, I do know my way around a kitchen. There is something so comforting about helping mine hostess prepare fruit pies by peeling pears and apples. There are words, but they are not important. The action is what matters, the preparation of the food and the cleaning of dishes afterwards.

The second language I know is music. I’ve actually forgotten most of my formal training, but I know chords now since I play the guitar. Originally it was something that I did for myself. I didn’t need to impress anyone, so I played for my own joy and to feel God’s pleasure. But I am surprised at how many people want to learn the guitar, and how something like music can form a connection between strangers. The letters that matter are the names of the chords and not in the words we speak. The sound that swells rich like chocolate through the air carries our words and our hopes. It is everything we don’t say.

I may not speak perfect French. I hope to one day. But for now, I will use my other languages to connect, to reach other people and to form friendships. And then maybe the half-life will become a little more complete.

The Paradox of Language

I am probably the only person who, when writing notes or letters to friends, pulls the card back out of the envelope and rereads it, just to make sure the name hasn’t changed and the words haven’t rearranged themselves into something wild and dangerous.

Language is unwieldy, and too often our words are loose cannons that we place under the illusion of control. Other times they fall short, their combined symbols failing to capture our true emotions on the page.

In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the characters reflects on the beauty and power of language:

“…a story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them. There was no gap during which the symbols were unraveled. You saw the word castle, and it was there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it, the air bluish and soft with smoke rising from the blacksmith’s forge, and a cobbled road twisting away into the green shade…”

Despite our best intentions, stories and texts can change. One linguistic theory suggests that no one can read the same text twice. The printed letters may stay the same, but the context has changed and the text has a different effect. Writing is so removed from reading; the author imagines a reader just as the reader imagines an author, neither one grasping the exact nature of the other. Our words may not be taken as we wish them to be. But what other means do we have? How else can we convey the urgent murmurs of the heart?

I think I love language for this paradox: it can never fully express what we want it to, but it comes tantalizingly close, close enough to work and close enough for words to change the world. We can try to categorize it scientifically, and that will work to a certain extent, but what is truly beautiful to me is not the placid surface of the canal, but the wild waves of the open sea.

Lay of the Land

Words are the building blocks of language. Composed of sound and meaning, syllables fly through the air and coil themselves tightly into my ears. My tongue tastes different spices–saffron, tarragon and cayenne–as the syllables escape my lips and take flight.

I have always loved words, so I suppose it’s a little ironic that what I tend to enjoy least in language class is learning vocabulary. Perhaps the format of long lists makes it tedious, or perhaps I have little context to aid my understanding. A stark list with the words on the left and the translation on the right is hardly language in every day use. But in order to use language, I must know these words.

I prefer learning words by accident. When I hear a word enough times, in context, I can understand the meaning and commit it to memory with less effort (but more time) than memorization. There is something more mysterious to me about oral language than the written form. With writing, we have frozen words to preserve them. They can be seen again, by different people in places far distant from their origin. With spoken language, the words rapidly fade away, never to be recovered except from the dark halls of memory. They are elusive, slippery.

Even so, memorization has its place. I can instantly amplify my vocabulary if I take the time to learn new words, and those same words can guide me to synonyms, antonyms, and idioms. Each language is an unknown country, and words become my map and compass. It takes time to understand a new language, but exploring the world God made is a lifelong pursuit. So we press on, keeping our eyes and ears open to get a lay of the land. After all, it’s a jungle out there.