“I am urine.” Carefully and tentatively I enunciate the unfamiliar sounds. My language tutor’s mouth twitches as she tries to keep a straight face. Politeness and honor are part of her country’s language culture. Trying hard not to laugh out loud, she then tells me what accidentally came out of my mouth while practicing verb declensions.
I almost fall out my chair laughing – you know, the ROTFL kind. (That’s “Rolling On The Floor Laughing” for those of you wondering.)
At the time, I was trying to say something else in my yet-to-be new language. Instead, “I am urine” came out, and I hadn’t even learned the word for “urine” yet. Language acquisition is like that. You say things you don’t want to and don’t say things you want to.
You just gotta have a lot of humor inside of you when you learn a language. It’s a waste of energy to be too serious. Maybe you’re supposed to be serious about language acquisition but you gotta laugh throughout the whole process.
Sometimes words sound very similar - even when you know their meanings. That brings up another of my “toilet”-related language mishaps.
I’m a “concept” person, which means that similar sounding words tend to get stored in the same memory niche in my brain instead of each in their own private space. It takes a while to sort them out – sometimes a very long time. That’s exactly what happened over several months whenever I needed to ask for a restroom in the refugee camps where we were training ladies to become health trainers themselves.
Instead of politely asking, “I want a bathroom, please,” what often came out of my mouth was, “I want pregnancy, please.” From the poorly disguised smiles on the women’s faces I could always tell when I got it wrong. I just couldn’t keep the two words “bathroom” and “pregnant” straight in my head.
The women were so gracious when they then took me to their latrines – sometimes making me wait while they first cleaned the floor and ground level toilet basin with a bucket of water they had carried with them. Then they’d make sure I had privacy if corrugated doors or curtains closed badly. Their concern for my welfare overshadowed any language or cultural faux pas on my part. I came to love them as I realized that all my vulnerabilities were safe with them.
Learning a language takes the humility and social fearlessness of a toddler. Language isn’t just word lists, grammar, verb declensions, semantics or pronunciation.
Language is about feeling, passion, timing, melody, humor, anger, politeness, professionalism, vulnerability. All these things come only by practicing words and expressions with a variety of real people in real situations.
I did end up learning the difference between "pregnancy" and "bathroom" with the repeated smiling help of others. Sometimes, though, I still pause a split second to make sure my brain pulls the right word out.
Hopefully my language mistakes among the refugees injected a little humor into their days full of survival worries. I do know that it put smiles on their faces.
About the Author: Christine is an IDEAS Associate and community health professional in multiple overseas locations, working among refugee communities. Enjoy other blogs by Christine, such as: How Do You Want to Live Your Life?