I can’t speak French. I also can’t speak Latin and a lot of other languages. But it’s those first two that bother me the most. Latin because I’m unreasonably fond of it and like to make bad jokes that nobody understands and French because I’ve quit learning French four times. In year two, in year eight, in year eleven and some time after that when I tried to teach myself and just ended up banging my head against the wall.
It’s not that I really want to speak French. Or Latin. (Although Latin would be cooler and French more useful.) It’s that I want to be bilingual. Hell, trilingual. Even… word-that-means-you-speak-a-dozen-languages.
I want to be able to speak multiple languages because it would broaden the scope of my mind, let me think in different ways. You see, language and thought are intertwined. Language affects the way we think. It affects the way we can think. The connotations embedded in words and grammar colour the way we think about the ideas and objects they refer to. The concepts we don’t have a way to express are harder to conceptualise, harder to remember. The words and phrases and idioms that fall most readily from our lips are indicative of our thought processes, but they also direct them. Try writing a sentence without the letter ‘e’ and see just how much harder you have to work. And be honest — does the final sentence say exactly what you originally meant it to?
It is possible to bypass the limitations of language. Writers manipulate language to communicate meaning all the time. The way great writers can construct things that we weren’t previously able to say is a particular gift. But generally you can only twist words so far. Thinking about your own culture, your own language is inherently limited if you’re thinking within that language. Speaking another language should enable me to think, even just a little, outside the framework of understanding I was born in. Which would be lovely. Oh the thinks I could think.
The problem is that language isn’t just about understanding, it’s also about communication. Jolly good, you’re thinking — you understand more languages, you can communicate with more people. Works in theory. But while the charm to being fluent in another language is that it automatically broadens the number of people you can talk to (or write for, for that matter), but there is a significant difference between Je ne parle pas beaucoup Français and fluency. And in the distance between them is me grinding my teeth, banging my head against the wall and throwing my books out the window. I can’t stand not being able to communicate properly.
I am utterly incapable in the general way of things of getting through a conversation without making dopey jokes or sotto voce commentary. I mean, I can do it, but I get bored and frustrated and I don’t know how to connect with people without making them laugh. And while I can make people laugh in French it’s more by saying, ‘your giraffe is in the fruit basket, what ho’ than in any way on purpose.
So what I’m thinking is — if someone could figure out a way to like stamp another language on my brain, that would be really cool. What do you say? Can one of you get on that?