The Incurable Language Bug

I came down with the Language Bug in the seventh grade. The affliction took hold during a mandatory Latin class at my Catholic middle school, and I was instantly hooked on language-learning: every mundane object suddenly had a brand new name, and every fiber of my twelve-year-old being ached to learn them all. With each successive stop on my linguistic odyssey, I encountered a different marvel: the musical lilt of Italian vowels, the guttural crackle of German consonants, and the elegant curlicues of Cherokee orthography. Yet it was Mandarin that transformed language-learning from an ascetic curiosity into a fervent passion. In China, for the first time, building human connections was more thrilling than building subjunctive clauses.

Buying "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Beijing 2010
Acquiring a Mandarin edition of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Beijing 2010.

I went on to pursue a master’s degree in linguistics, an unlikely about-face for a newly minted chemistry graduate. But there were unmistakable parallels between these seemingly orthogonal career paths. Science is all about gleaning order from seeming chaos: reducing erratic electron trajectories to elegant wave functions, parsing tangled polypeptide chains into discrete domains, or representing 118 elements on one tidy table that fits in my purse. There is a grammar to the way cyclohexene rings isomerize and ions collapse into crystalline lattices. Indeed, extracting the patterns from a continuous stream of unintelligible phonemes is not all that different from deconvoluting the jagged peaks of an NMR spectrum. And so I poured myself into studying “the science of language,” dabbling in Japanese and Tibetan and French in an attempt to learn as much as possible about the mechanics of various world languages.

It was during this master’s program that Hindi and I had our first encounter. In class, my peers and I falteringly traced the curvy contours of Devanagari and stumbled over retroflex T’s under the patient tutelage of our thickly-accented Hungarian instructor. (Consider this my official excuse for why I speak Hindi with a slight Eastern European inflection. ;)) I sang a very awkward rendition of “Tere Liye” at a Diwali ball (there was a notable absence of miniskirts and motorcycle wheelies in our version), coerced a group of my more indulgent friends into watching Bollywood films every Friday night, and pored over Urdu ghazals in translation, longing for the day when I might be able to appreciate them in their original language. But despite working my way through most of Rupert Snell’s legendary textbook “Teach Yourself Hindi,”*[1] I never achieved conversational proficiency. So when I found myself in India on an AIF Clinton Fellowship, I flung myself at the chance to enroll in an intensive Hindi course at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur.

Diwali Ball, University of Oxford, 2012
Diwali Ball, University of Oxford, 2012.

I fell in love with the city at first sight: with the rose-tinted Amer Fort peering superciliously at the city below; with the fluted facade of the Hawa Mahal; with the fresh, dry air (a pleasant departure from Mumbai’s oppressive humidity) below an absurdly blue sky; with the bustling market stalls and their garrulous vendors, including our favorite sari dukandar from whom my two friends and I purchased no fewer than seven saris. However, some of my happiest moments that week took place on a blue plastic chair at a plain oak table, the kind you carved your crush’s name into during grade school. There, puzzling over compound tenses and laughing with my teachers and peers over our innumerable grammar gaffes, while the pankhas whirred overhead and spiced chai brewed in the courtyard, I felt an exhilaration I hadn’t felt in years. More than that: I felt at home.

City Palace, Jaipur. From left: Nisha S, Olivia W, Palace Guard, Janan D, Benjamin B
City Palace, Jaipur. From left: Nisha S, Olivia W, Palace Guard with Cool Hat, Janan D, Benjamin B.

I sometimes do wonder whether language learning – at least the way I tend to practice it – is an indulgent, perhaps even selfish pursuit. Sure it’s fun to bounce from language to language, picking up words and phrases like shiny pebbles on a beach and them tossing them aside when something more glittery comes along (Guys guys guys: Turkish is agglutinative, TIME FOR A NEW LANGUAGE.); but at the end of the day, is it really worthwhile to know a smattering of words in a given tongue? Aren’t my efforts better spent truly mastering one language, so that I can use that skill to actually, er, help people? [2]

And even if I do come reasonably close to fluency in a foreign tongue, what doors can language-learning realistically open for me: a gangly, dirty blonde, conspicuously Teutonic American? No matter how many sher’s I can rattle off or Bollywood tunes I can belt (“My name is Anthony Gonzalves, main duniya mein akela hooooon…” has been stuck in my head for over a week now), I will always be ineluctably American. To pretend I can achieve more than a cursory understanding of the everyday issues Indians face would be a disservice to myself and my hosts. Is it presumptuous to even hope that I can offer substantive assistance to a community other than the one from which I originated? This question took on greater urgency in the wake of recent political events in America. Reflecting back on my civic engagement over the past few months, I have to ask myself: in a somewhat over-optimistic attempt to serve the citizens of another country, did I turn my back on my own?

But on the other hand (and pardon the brief foray into corny-ville), I have found language-learning to be one of the most powerful ways to show respect – indeed, love – for one’s fellow human beings. In fact, most of the languages I’ve studied have been a gesture of affection for someone dear to me. German was for my grandmother, who left her tiny grape-growing village deep in the Bavarian Black Forest at fifteen. Chinese was for my college roommate, who was my lifeline during a difficult freshman year and continues to be the world’s best advice-giver (even inspiring the family saying, “What Would Natalie Do?”). Japanese was for my violin teacher who is like a grandmother to me, and who abandoned everything she owned during a wartime escape from Tokyo to Russia in the 1940’s. In the process of trying to enrich a personal relationship, I have been deeply fortunate to gain access to new cultures, faraway countries, and thitherto unexplored facets of my own identity. And in so doing, the Big Wide World has become just a little smaller and less foreign.

So I’ll continue to slog ahead through my studies of Hindi, although I’ll never really be able to hear the difference between a voiced retroflex aspirated flap and a voiced retroflex aspirated affricate or come to terms with the notion of a third-degree causative, and WHY must there be both Sanskritic and Perso-Arabic lexicons to contend with… But these frustrations seem trivial when a rickshaw driver chuckles good-naturedly at my enthusiastic “Bahut dhanyavad!” or when a sabzi vendor patiently engages me in a three-minute Hindi conversation. If I can demonstrate to my adopted family that I care enough to at least make an effort, then my tribulations are more than worthwhile.

In that sense, I suppose, the mere act of trying is itself success.


[1] Snell, Rupert, and S. C. R. Weightman. Complete Hindi. London: Teach Yourself, 2010. Print.
[2] While studying Japanese several years ago, I sketched a “Language-Learning Motivation Curve” that poked fun at my short linguistic attention span:

Language-Learning Motivation Curve



Blue: Wow. This is hard. I can’t say anything in Language X except for “Hello my name is Olivia I am from America this food is very tasty where is the nearest bathroom.” Every new word is just an arbitrary string of syllables… How the heck am I supposed to cram them all into my head?

Pink: Aw gee whiz, I think I’m finally getting the hang of this thing!! Isn’t it just incredible that a tree and a Baum and an albero and a 木 and a पेड़ are all the very same thing? It’s like someone just removed a pair of filtered glasses off my eyes, and the whole world is suddenly bathed in an entirely new wavelength of light. I am euphoric!!!

Green: Why hello there, Law of Diminishing Returns! It’s now taking an inordinate amount of effort to make a mere modicum of progress. Is this actually worth it anymore? I can sort of get around in Language X at this point, right? Do I really need to know the word for “edible hair-like moss” in Chinese? (Answer, in case you were dying to know: 发菜.)

Green arrow: The inflection point at which I throw in the Language X towel and start Language Y.

Red arrow: My current location.? (circa 2012)

Olivia is eager to learn about India through the lens of her experiences in China. She is also excited to watch gazillions of Bollywood films in the name of cultural immersion - like the one about the guy that turns into a housefly! The People's Archive of Rural India documents "the everyday lives of everyday people" and touches upon so many causes she cares deeply about, including public health/education in underserved communities, sustainable agriculture, endangered languages, and indigenous cultures. Her career as an engineer at Microsoft and NPR and her background in research science have honed her analytical and technical skills; furthermore, she hopes that her experience helping to document an endangered Tibetan langauge in Southwest China will inform her fieldwork in rural districts. Olivia adores polka dots, cardamom, and the color yellow, and she is an avid actress and musician. She has a Travel Troll that accompanies her on all her international adventures, and she somehow never learned to tie her shoes!

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