Language #6… if you don’t listen too carefully…

by Tabitha Kidwell

I speak 5 languages.

Ha! That’s not true. I mean, I say that sometimes, but it’s really not true. I have studied 5 languages, but most of what I have studied is lost to me. Malagasy, so painstakingly acquired while buying mangoes, trying to teach English, and sweating on the Mozambique Channel, only comes to me in random words and phrases. Mahay. Te hihinina. Olom-belona tsy akoho. Much like my favorite red flowered dress from that time, I cannot believe I allowed myself to lose it.

I’m pretty sure Indonesian will also disappear. It came back to me while I was back there in January, and I might find Indonesian friends at grad school, but I probably won’t find many opportunities to use it, and it will also get misplaced in a junk drawer somewhere in my mind.

Of course, I can still say that I speak those languages because I will almost never say it to someone who will be able to test me. French and Spanish I do still speak, and am functionally conversational whenever I run into a French speaker or wander through a Spanish speaking country. But I studied both languages for long enough to know that my grammar is atrocious, full of mismatched endings and haphazardly formed subjunctives.

So that makes three languages I really speak, though I speak two of those rather poorly. And my English is even peppered with international oddities – should I say cell, mobile, or hand phone? – and I tend to throw in an alhamdulillah from time to time.

Nevertheless, I’m working on language number 6 – Marathi, which is basically only spoken in the Indian state of Maharastra. This gives the impression that it is a useless, provincial language (which it might be), but it is spoken by 73 million people – more than Korean, Vietnamese, or Turkish! After teaching and learning so many languages, I’m no polyglot, but I’m fairly good at the process. I know what I need to learn right away – subject pronouns, basic verb forms, question words – and I have 5 previous languages with which to make mnemonic devices. I’m pretty comfortable with grammatical forms that deviate from English (Gender? No big deal. Inclusive/Exclusive we? Got it).

But Marathi presents a new challenge; because it’s the first language I’ve learned with a new alphabet. I observed a 1st grade Marathi class and was super jealous of their neat handwriting and ability to sound out words. Learning to read in a second language is really interesting for me as a teacher. I understand better what it must be like to be 5 years old, looking at a text, and able to pick out one word. I’ve been studying flashcards of the letters and practicing writing them out. I’m at the point where I can copy words and read v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and I’m thrilled about that. I feel like I now have first hand understanding of education-y words like “decoding,” “deciphering,” and “meaning making.” There are 45 (or maybe 49) letters, and each of the 12 vowels has two forms. Though they actually aren’t even letters, because it isn’t actually an alphabet, it’s an abugida (Since you want to google that anyways, click here). It seems complicated, but it’s actually really nice because it means that each letter/syllable will always be pronounced in the exact same way, so pronouncing words correctly is just a matter of reading them correctly. Take that, French!

In the ten weeks I am here, I won’t make much progress, but it’s fun for me to try. Three weeks in, I’m starting to be able to read and write, but basically all I can do is tell the names and ages of my friends, family, and myself. This isn’t so useful when my family is 10,000 miles away and I only have like 10 friends. I enjoy the process, though, and it’s teaching me ore about how languages and learning work. More importantly, it’s a good gimmick – a party trick, really – to help me build relationships with the teachers and students at school. They’re tickled at my fumbling attempts to introduce myself and identify school supplies. It’s helping me grow closer to the people around me. Which, I guess, is the whole purpose of language in the first place. I may not really speak 6 languages, but they still have helped me make friends all over the world!

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