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By Emma Eaton
This is the first time I’ve attempted to learn a new language in fifteen years. My second language, Spanish, didn’t even feel like learning. I remember sitting down on my first day of kinder and going through the lists of shapes and colors on the wall. Since everything was in Spanish, I never considered the fact that I was doing anything unusual. I was learning to write like every other kid – except I shared the first letter of my name con un elefante, not an elephant. Thirteen years of bilingual education later, I still wasn’t comfortable speaking the language with strangers. I’d speak Spanish in class, with my friends, but send me to a Mexican market with my dad and I’d still order the pico de gallo with an: “I’ll have a quart of the salsa in the middle, no, the other one, yeah, that’s it.” If I was going to surprise people as the white girl who spoke Spanish, I had to do it perfectly.
I envy those who can engage across language barriers with zero fear of humiliation. I envy those who are terrified, but do it anyways, even more. My method is to look for excuses: The patti said “thank you,” so it’s okay if I say that too, instead of “nandri.” Or: “you know more English than I know Tamil, so let’s communicate using words that we both already know well.” Every smile that I give the Canteen staff comes with an apology — an “I’m sorry I didn’t say sappadu nalla irrukudhu even though I really wanted to tell you how good I think your food is.”
Language is hard. Add a touch of anxiety to that, and it’s even harder. But that’s not the point. My point is that the more I struggle to communicate with language, the more other forms of communication stand out. Take the other week in the field as an example. My partner and I were both frustrated, we were inventorying without a translator, and the more we failed at getting our points across, the more we shut down. It was a rough week, but once those tensions subsided, I couldn’t help but think about a game we used to play. The rules were simple. She would talk at someone in Irula, I would talk at that same person in Spanish, and we would build off of each other to have a fake conversation about someone in languages that none of us could understand. It drove everyone else crazy, but was the best we’d ever communicated. Neither of us were worried about making mistakes. We were able to let expression and intonation guide the conversation.
My anxiety over language still exists. It’s not like a new approach to communication is magically going to fix that. It just helps to remember that words aren’t the sole determinant of my ability to express myself. If I mess up, I can laugh off my mistake with the person I’m talking to — give them an “I tried” smile instead of an “I-want-to-try smile.” The context behind the latter smile is limiting. It considers language as purely auditory. The former recognizes that the more comfortable and familiar language of the body can serve as a scaffold. Communication extends beyond the limits of vocabulary