I have a friend who is fluent in two languages, good in another. She travels in Europe easily, finding a way to make sense of even the languages she doesn't speak. So it was with some confidence she traveled one winter to Russia to visit her daughter who was studying there. To her surprise, however, she couldn't make any sense of the language. There was nothing romance or Anglo-Saxon about it, and the alphabet! That was what did it. The letters didn't sound the way she imagined they would, and because of that inability to move into the culture--something she was very used to--she didn't enjoy the trip as much as she thought she might.
When I look at the Cyrillic alphabet, it looks sort of doable. except, of course, for all those weird shapes. But I am used to not understanding things, especially in countries where English, French, or Spanish are not the languages of choice. The good news for me is that these days, I can cobble together some cultural understanding in most countries and make it through.
But when I look out at my class that is primarily composed of second-language students, I can't imagine how they do it every single day. Most come from countries where there is another alphabet. And not just the Cyrillic. We are talking Korea and Japan. If I were in any of those countries, going to the grocery store might put me over the edge. The Hangul alphabet from Korea looks like, well, designs to me. Nice little pictures. The Japanese alphabet uses three main scripts, the Kanji, Hiragna, and Katakana. All three look like tiny little line drawings composed in exquisite detail.
How could that be possible to learn such languages? I see myself staring at cans of vegetables in a Tokyo grocery, trying to find something that might be green beans. In the hotel, I would stare at the television, hoping that the words didn't say, "Earthquake. Go to the nearest door jamb."
In fact, I would probably watch television a great deal, not ever having to reply to the person talking to me. I would become the American hermit, living in my little room, scurrying to the grocery store to buy green beans, knowing they are green beans because of the picture on the can.
So there these students are, looking at me with my modern English alphabet, these folks who can read tiny little pictures and have them make sense. They've learned enough English to work their way up to this level of study, and all of them are struggling. But they can rent apartments, go shopping, sign up for classes, and do all the things people have to do to live. In another language.
I admire that, this stretching of the brain from one diametrically opposed language to another. So much space between us. And they are trying to fill it in, bit by bit, word by word.
So it's not working very well and will take a long time, and so most of them will not get A's in my class, but what an achievement. What an amazing stretch.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org