ELL: Eternal Language Learner

“…by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, [travel] can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” –Maya Angelou

So this week I have come to the conclusion that all of us are ELLs.  But not ELLs in the typical form.  Rather than being English Language Learners, we are all Eternal Language Learners.  Needless to say, many of my preconceptions of what it means to actually speak a language and/or be fluent in a language were shattered this week, as I found myself speaking more Chinese than I have for the entire past year and putting together sentences with the meager Mandarin vocabulary that I have in order to get my point across.

My Preconceptions: Me being the perfectionist that I am, I have always thought that fluency in another language involved being able to speak it perfectly, understand every commonly-used word that is thrown at you in said language, be able to directly translate from this new language to your first language, and always be able to get your point across easily and clearly.

False.  False, false, false.

It has always been for these reasons that I’ve been afraid to use the minimal Mandarin skills that I do have.  Somehow I think that, if I can’t come up with the vocabulary word for something, than there’s no way that I’d be able to get my point across.  Whenever I get ready to say something in Mandarin, I always had to construct the sentence in my mind in English, then translate into Mandarin, then second-guess myself, then realize I didn’t know the exact grammar, and then suddenly it was too late to even try to say what I had intended to.  And if someone suddenly starts talking to me in Mandarin, I constantly try to pick up every word.

My conclusions: This week I came to the realization that speaking another language does not necessarily mean that you understand every word, nor are you always completely understood.  Think of how often we have miscommunications in our native language.  And how many times we come across a new piece of vocabulary that we don’t quite understand.  We use contextual clues to interpret meaning, but we often don’t always know everything that the other person is talking about.  I came to realize this as I watched people who I see as fluent in both Taiwanese and Mandarin, comparing the way that they spoke their foreign languages with they way that I used mine.  Often there are still miscommunications.  There is still necessary clarification of a thought or word.  But what makes them fluent is that they are eager to add these knew concepts to their vocabulary and build on them.  It’s not that they speak it perfectly, but it’s how they learn from the parts that they don’t speak perfectly.

Not only this, but I have also learned much more about my own capabilities when it comes to language.  When placed in a situation where I had to communicate, the people I spoke to responded to the little Mandarin that I did know.  It wasn’t that I knew every vocabulary word that I was trying to say.  Rather, it was that I used the vocabulary that I did know and improvised when I didn’t know something.  Being able to speak a language doesn’t mean that you know everything, but it’s how resourceful you are with the things that you do know.

And as far as translating directly from one language to another?  There’s an aspect of language that goes beyond single words and phrases.  We use words to communicate meaning, but the meaning of something is not locked up in the single word that we use in English.  The meaning of a thought transcends the words that we use to describe it.  So, there may not actually be a direct translation of something.  It’s when you stop being bound by words that you’re truly able to convey something to another person in a different language.  There’s more to communication than just the words on a page or the words that we speak.

With those thoughts in mind, I’ve come to realize that, while I may be a perfectionist and want to speak a language impeccably before I use it, that’s not the point of learning another language.  I that were the case, I’m not even fluent in English.  Like I said, how often have we mistaken what one person said for something that they never intended to convey at all?  In that case, I proudly claim my title as ELL–Eternal Language Learner.  That’s what we all are.


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