what being a baby must feel like

here’s the thing—there are a ton of words in any language. take english for example. how many words do we have to describe the item of clothing that covers your bottom half—pants, slacks, jeans, bottoms, shorts, culottes, whatever. and that’s not including all the slang terms or weird combination words.

therefore, a non-native speaker of any language is constantly confronted with words they don’t know. obviously. but, not really that obvious. having never spent this much time in a place where english is not the dominant language, I have been shocked to see how slowly progress comes when trying to understand and speak another language.

a part of me, honestly, has given up. not given up in the sense of “oh gosh, I’ll never learn french.” but, rather, that I will not learn french in the short amount of time that I will be in france. I am getting better and I’m learning, but it will take many more months and years to speak the language with relative ease.

the outside of my favorite museum in paris: the cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration at 293 avenue daumesnil
the outside of my favorite museum in paris: the cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration at 293 avenue daumesnil

this slacker mentality is very freeing, really. I get my life back, a little. I can ride the subway without spending, seriously, eight minutes trying to interpret signs. I can listen to lots of and lots of conversations at starbucks and not lose my mind straining to hear, only to be disappointed when I can only ascertain that someone is using the past tense of some verb I don’t understand, or maybe, kind of, realize that someone is talking about a book they read.

I’m living the life of a baby, really. I recognize that something is what it is by sight, not because I’m reading the package, which I did—package reading—incessantly in the States. I move through spaces and trust that I’m going the right way because I really can’t ask for directions. I visit museums and I purely enjoy the sartorial aspect of the exhibition, not the accompanying words, because I can’t understand them. I don’t know what the subway people are saying over the loudspeaker, but I know when a train is randomly offloading when I see lots of people exiting.

I have a theory that when I go somewhere where english is the dominant language, I will be overwhelmed by words and sounds that I actually understand. true sensory overload. I watched indiana jones in english last night and it was very trippy. I saw a sign that said “attention” and assumed it was a french word that I didn’t understand, even though a part of my brain registered that it was english. the accents of harrison ford and shia labeouf sounded garish to me, for some reason—all those hard “r”s (that I use on a regular basis).

baby-living is fine for a short time. it’s certainly preferable to the constant frustration that I felt before when I was insistent on being the same person here that I was in America. I’m more quiet, which is also fine, and I’m less anxious. I don’t worry about whether I’ll be able to communication with someone, because I have the historical certainty that some way, with some combination of hand gestures, head nods and my limited vocabulary, I will.

2 thoughts on “what being a baby must feel like

  1. I think it’s so interesting to have this perspective. I speak Spanish and English but I learned English as a very young child and really there was a sense of not being mindful of the learning that was going on. Maybe it’ll be easier now that you’re allowing yourself to just be and soak what you can in? Have you read David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day? He’s got a hilarious story in there about learning French. It made laugh so much.

    1. yeah, I think it’s totally different when you’re really young. trying to learn a language as an adult makes me wonder why it’s not required that all kids are immersed in a second language from a young age.

      I haven’t read that essay but I’m googling immediately! thanks for sharing!

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