Language Envy

Sometimes I experience what I call as language envy. In many ways I am in awe of the person in front of me, who as an outsider of a culture, has learned another language and appears to be able to partake in conversation even if it is slow or with hiccups. I look at myself and think will that be me one day? Can I too speak at the same level confidently in this language? Why didn’t I start earlier? I should really start studying. All these thoughts enter my head at once and I think that this must be envy, haha.This happens to me from time to time. I am always in awe and inspired by people who can speak two or more languages and switch between the two easily. There were times in Korea where I could do this myself, between Korean and English. Yet, most of the time I wish it were more fluid or I had a higher command of Korean. I suppose that is the perfectionist in me that views there is always room for improvement even though I know no one is perfect.

Today I happened to witness a foreign woman at a cafe doing a language exchange. She was teaching English and was learning Tibetan, but the mode of communication was in Chinese. Listening to her I wondered how long she had been living in China, was Chinese her major in university, how long has she been studying Tibetan, did it take her long to reach that level of conversation? I never asked those questions to her, but it made me wonder about where I was at and how long it might take me to reach that level. The answer is no one knows… it all comes down to my drive and dedication.

Which made me wonder why I have waited so long to pursue learning Tibetan? I tried thinking of all the reasons or better yet excuses as to why I didn’t. I’ve had Tibetan friends since middle school and realistically if I had put in any effort to learn or retain words I probably could be an intermediate beginner now. However, I never reached out and asked my friends to teach me, as I don’t want to be a burden on someone’s time. If I want to learn I should make an effort myself, which I never did until recently.

I often wondered how people would view me for learning Tibetan, the same as when I learned Korean or Japanese. What is the driving factor behind it? I’m not a converted buddhist and I do not want to be one of those foreigners that gloats they speak the language of someone else better than the person who grew up outside of their culture. Is it a thin line to walk and where does it blur from being respectful to gloating? I always think it is better to be humble about my achievements as there is no need to show off to others.

Recently, I have a Tibetan tutor and I have documented a little bit of my studies on social media mostly to keep myself accountable and to break out of my shell. I am very shy when learning new things and I do not like to make mistakes for fear of being ridiculed. However, I thought this time what better way than to use social media, my private account, to document this process? At times, I think maybe I should vlog about it, but I have no video editing skills and I really do not think I’m interesting enough to tune in to. I also wonder if struggling to learn a new language openly later in life will encourage others to pursue their languge learning goals? Will you learn more about your mother tongue? Is there a language you have wanted to learn, but put off because you think you are too old to learn? Have you given up on learning a language because you think you are bad at it and progress is slow?

I wish I had pursued learning Tibetan much earlier in life when I was surrounded by people who love me and would have laughed and taught me how to fix my mistakes. I want to follow along in the conversation when it switches from English to Tibetan, not because I’m paranoid people are talking shit about me, rather because I want to engage and hear what you have to say, even if I can’t partake, I can listen without someone translating for me.

Through language we learn about culture and how our identity and the world is shaped in our minds. The similarities and differences and how each new language expands our capacity to understand how the language we use influences us in our daily life.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. You are actually very good at learning different languages. So far Japanese, Korean and now Tibetan. I find this amazing as I am not good at languages. I honestly think some are better than others at absorbing languages. Don’t be embarrassed you are doing exceptionally well!

  2. Nina,
    OMG !!! You have the ability and determination to achieve your goals..You always have.. Just because you are not fluent in Tibetan NOW, doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future..Ya know Nina, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so reach down deep in your back pocket and grab ahold of those patients you misplaced..You are so versed in languages, and just know there are millions of people that only speak one language ( me included, except for a few explicits in Italian) ..Why feel like a burden to people that can and are willing to teach you , as do you think your students feel like a burden when and how you teach them? Absolutely not…So, do follow your dreams and know we love you and believe in you ,your dreams and your goals..
    Love, Aunt Millie

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