Having just read a post on a friend’s blog describing his learning Spanish like a love affair, I was struck at how apt an analogy it was. It got me looking at the language-learning process from a new perspective. I started reflecting on my own various linguistic affairs and dalliances and realised when it comes to languages I’m a bit of a hussy.
When a language catches my eye/ear, I like to give it a go, commitment-free, see how it feels on my tongue and decide if it is a prospect for further pursuit. Therefore, I am about to do something I would NEVER do about my actual love life: I’m going to outline here my relationship with every language with whom I’ve ever had an affair, no holds barred, all the gory details included…
My old man: English. Of course we have to start with the langue maternelle. He’s been with me all my life, and no matter how hard I try I’ll never be able to escape the clutches of the one who has influenced me the most in my life, who determined who I am today and continues to dominate my every thought. He’s my point of reference for every other language, and I love and hate him. I love him because he is so much a part of me, yet I hate being in his grip; and it really is an inescapable one. EVERYONE knows him.
My current lover: French. Romantic and exciting, we’ve been together long enough for me to have a good understanding of him, but not long enough for me to be bored. I’m learning new things about him everyday, and he’s opened me up to a wealth of culture and literature I would not have been able to experience without him. He’s a challenge, intoxicating, charming and oh-so-beautiful!
The one that won’t leave me alone: German. Something just never quite worked with us. I dedicated four years of my life to him, and on paper, we were a perfect match (full marks in my German GCSE). People often complimented my pronunciation, and I found him very appealing: a handsome, refined sort of fellow. But he was too aloof, always just out of my reach. I worked hard but in the end we just weren’t fusing; I had to let him go. Yet now he is constantly popping up everywhere I go, I can’t escape. Though a part of me wants to start things up again, I don’t think we really have a future.
My childhood sweetheart: Chinese (mandarin). My first-ever love, the first language I learned to speak, my origin and my destiny. Somewhere along the line, we just grew apart. My current husband, English, got in the way, and became a far bigger presence in my life. I still long for the days when I could speak Chinese fluently, and now I regret having neglected him. We can build on our foundations but we’ve wasted a lot of time apart. Every time I hear his melodic tones I feel my heart soften; something about him still feels like home.
The (much) older man: Latin. He was so old he was positively a relic; dead, even. He was filled with the wisdom of the ages, but we were very stop-and-start. I renewed my liaison with him twice, each time full of hope for us, but in the end he was just too old for me. He enriched my relationships with other Romance languages, but wasn’t relevant enough for my modern life. My peers regarded us with a mixture of incomprehension and admiration. I am still full of respect for him, but I needed someone younger, with more validity and, well, life.
The one(s) that got away: Chinese (Cantonese and Hubei dialect). This was a strange relationship because I was completely passive. I understood, but I could not speak. Over the years, I didn’t bother to cultivate my understanding, and of course no man likes to be under-appreciated. He left me, and I let him go without a fight.
The Fling: Ancient Greek. We had some serious chemistry. For two weeks last summer we had an intense entanglement, but then it burned out pretty fast when we tried to carry things on here in Lausanne. It was fun while it lasted, but I wasn’t willing to commit time and energy to someone I didn’t like enough. Ultimately not The One.
The one that could have been: Italian. I entertained the idea of pursuing him instead of French at university, and was even offered a place on a course, but in the end Frenchie won. We got together briefly for a week in Italy but both parties knew it was temporary; just for convenience. He’s dashing and seductive, but doesn’t really fit into my lifestyle. I admire from a distance.
The accidental affair: Japanese. I never really intended to start anything with him, yet a brief period in my adolescence watching Japanese dramas and listening to J-Rock gave me a surprising level of comprehension. I found him cute and endearing, but he elicited a vague feeling of guilt when I thought about my other, and first, Asian love: Chinese. I owed it to my family honour to focus more on my first love, the one they approved of.
The sexy new prospects: Spanish and Portuguese. I fancy them both, but friends have warned me against two-timing them; being so similar they are very easily confused. Spanish always danced vaguely in my consciousness, as many of my friends have had long-term relationships with him, but I never really considered him a real prospect, until I fell in love with Latin dance and Latin culture. Suddenly, Spanish took on a whole new sex appeal. A vague obsession with Brazil similarly awakened a powerful attraction to Portuguese. These two guys breath warmth and passion, cultures completely different to what I have known and the thrilling prospect of South American adventures. Spanish and I have a date this Thursday, and Portuguese…well, we’ll see.