While rummaging through an old travel wallet, I came across a memento that I had tucked away during my time in Vietnam. When my friends and I checked into our hostel dorm room in Hanoi, we found a guy there quietly reading in his bunk. He seemed friendly and made an effort to exchange a few words with me in English before leaving the room. When I came back later that day, he had checked out but left this note on my pillow: Coming across this note got me thinking about my relationship with languages. I grew up in a bilingual home, studied French in middle and high school, and earned a BA in Italian, yet I still get anxious whenever I’m in a position to practice speaking any of these languages, despite the years I spent learning each one.
This is a struggle that dates all the way back to age 3 when my family moved back to the U.S. from Israel. I suddenly went mute for an entire year when we got to the States and wouldn’t speak to anyone outside of my home. I was the silent girl in preschool until one day I must have felt like I knew English well enough to finally speak. As the years went on and English became my first language, the tables turned and to this day I don’t feel really comfortable speaking Hebrew—even when my mom talks to me in Hebrew, I reply in English.
I have always envied those people who can confidently engage in a conversation in a second language, no matter how broken or flawed. I’m a self-critical perfectionist, so when I’m in a situation in which I can speak Hebrew or Italian (French now requires a lot of wine to count as a language that I speak), I tend to freeze up and worry more about finding the correct tenses and words than enjoy the opportunity to practice and connect.
Ironically, I feel much more confident in countries where I have never studied the language and just picked up words and phrases along the way. When I travel in Latin America I love fumbling my way through a basic Spanish conversation. I imagine that this has something to do with the fact that I never formally studied Spanish, so I don’t know where I am making mistakes or feel the pressure that I should know more than I actually do.
Being able to speak with and understand someone is such an empowering and barrier-breaking tool. I get so much joy out of the process of learning a language, but I struggle with letting go and accepting the imperfections to allow room for connection on a more human level.
This self-imposed pressure is something I want to change, and the recent opening of an Italian-run gelato shop in my neighborhood has presented itself as a perfect opportunity to start challenging myself to speak up. I mean, if gelato can’t get me to do something, I may as well give up all hope.
On my first visit I forced myself to speak despite the numerous fumbles. It was embarrassing and continues to be so, but I try to let go and have fun with it. And you know what? They appreciate the effort in the same way that I was touched by Manabu’s effort to connect.
In what ways have you kept up your language skills when you are off the road?