I’ve been thinking about how we become the people we are.
Becoming is a theme I like to explore… I wrote a memoir about becoming a writer.
And I’m always becoming something new. These days I’m working on becoming someone who understands multiple languages (or tries to). I wonder where and how my fascination with languages started. I didn’t grow up in a multi-linguistic environment.
Maybe it began when in Kindergarten, my Sunday School Teacher taught us to sing “I’ve got the joy-joy-joy-joy down in my heart” in Chinese. I felt very clever. I like feeling clever.
For years, I sang that Chinese song. It went like this (I don’t know the Chinese characters, so I’ll have to write it in transliteration): “I’ve got the peesah-passah-kooki-mahcki down in my heart….”
Okay, so she only taught us a few of the words in Chinese.
Actually, as I discovered many years later, she wasn’t teaching us Chinese at all. Eventually I learned that this verse of the Joy-joy song goes, “I’ve got the peace-that-passeth-understanding down in my heart.”
But my five-year-old heart was so enamored with the idea of speaking another language, any other language, that I invented an opportunity to speak Chinese. I already sensed the power of words and I wanted to know them all, every word in the whole world. (Greedy for words, that’s what I was!)
At the same time, I intuitively understood something profound (as children often do). Ideas and concepts (such as “peace”) are so vast and mysterious that no single language could adequately express my thoughts. Children, still immersed in the dramatic wonder of language acquisition, understand some things that we adults barely remember we knew. Learning a new language takes me back into that time when naming something was powerful, when just speaking the word peace might conjure peace, (Friede, Paix, Paz, Shalom) as if wishing it and then saying it could make peace reign. (Couldn’t it?)
And then, in third grade I, a child of 100% German-Lutheran heritage, became a Spanish orphan, when my school put on an operetta.
An operetta is a cheesy musical for children actors, often with a moral message. Ours was called The Man With the Crooked Nose. I played Carmencita, a Spanish waif living at a Swiss orphanage run by (come on, guess….)
Of course. The Man with the Crooked Nose!
As Carmencita, I lived in an orphanage in Switzerland founded by the man with the crooked nose. He collected German orphans, French orphans, Dutch and Norwegian orphans. It annoyed me that we all spoke only English. We each knew only one word in our mother-tongues. Yes… Si… Ja…. Oui…
We bickered mildly about which way of saying “yes” was the right “oui.” But in true operetta fashion, soon (and without any believable motivation for doing so) we all joined hands and sang (in American-accented English, of course):
Well, who cares
as long as we
with one another?
But by then I knew it wasn’t that easy for people to get over their differences, especially when only in operettas do people from all those different countries speak the same language.
Maybe that’s how I became someone who always wants to learn another language. I think language-learning is important for understanding, which is important for peace.
And maybe you’ve figured out that this post is introducing a new series for my blog–language learning, why and how.
What’s your second language? (or third or fourth?) Or which one would you like to speak?