On Learning a New Language: Scratching Past the Surface of Communication


“Gratar.” As that word spilled out of my mouth I felt the two hemispheres of my mind collide. It was as if suddenly, after having calculatingly circled one another like judo wrestlers, creativity launched itself at logic and twisted it into a headlock. As the two parts of myself wrestled to gain the advantage, I listened to a story about how a father had just been diagnosed with liver cancer.

Of course, for anyone who speaks any romance languages, you may have gathered that my nonsense, hybrid word spawned from “grater” and “rascar,” which are French and Spanish respectively for “to scratch.” Why I wanted to string those particular phonemes together, well, that’s another story.

In any case, after nine months of dedicatedly wading through night after night of French lessons, my mind is slowly beginning to override my years of Spanish training in favor of this new linguistic intrusion.

Disappointingly, it has taken me nine months to get here because apparently, when it comes to other languages, my mind processes at the approximate velocity of the viscosity of molasses. Now, however, I am having to stir the alphabet soup of my mind every time I wish to extract a coherent sentence in any language.

If I don’t, it is inevitable that some sort of bastardized amalgam will result.

Which, for a writer is effectively going mute. What is the use of a handful of sinewy adjectives if I can’t even keep the reigns on the nouns they are straining to modify or manipulate an elegant past participle to my will? The answer is nothing of much significance. As you try to slide down the structure of a sentence you are unexpectedly left with flayed ends that sting the edges of your mind as you try to complete the thought before your adjectives flutter off and become irretrievable wisps of the imagination.

And therein lies my dilemma. The further I reach for my mother tongue, the deeper the flogs cut, making the search for linguistic expression – the defining differentiator of mankind from animals – an unnaturally difficult task. Exhaustion takes over as my thoughts freeze in the flow of sentences, stagnated by cumbersome Latinate derivatives.

That is not to say there is not beauty in pain. With these newly knotted ties to both Germanic and Latin roots, words have become more than just pieces to a syntactic puzzle. They have become their own individual entities.

I can watch the history of language and (as an English native) appreciate Shakespeare, not for his verse, but for his work in uniting the classes of society with what Hamlet so aptly terms “words, words, words.”

Magically the seemingly self-congratulatory prose of politicians has real meaning. I can literally see them selecting a term for its reference to Rosseau and John Locke as well as its accuracy in application to the Constitution.

I can even recognize the evolved use of “literally” in common speech as the perfect embodiment of #ironic speech.

Even lowbrow comedy can seem high-handed with its sly insertions of double entendre.

So yes, there is so much more to a syllable than a sound.

But for now, I will return to my menial task of compartmentalizing my languages and trying to cleanly sift through a sentence for the sake of clarity.


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