New-to-us languages are a love letter to the tongue

New-to-us languages are a love letter to the tongue

Christmas season commence! Thanksgiving is over, and it is now time for Christmas trees and twinkling lights.

I know most of you are blushing because you’ve had your tree up since Halloween, haven’t you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas and what it means in other countries: the language and breadth of it, the traditions, and if it’s even celebrated. I learned so many Mexican Christmas traditions by allowing immersion in its culture: the simplicity of singing songs to baby Jesus, a perfectly seasoned tamale steaming in its corn husk, giving myself grace as I spoke my broken Spanish to those gathered. I received grace in return as they enfolded me into their traditions, allowing a white girl from Ohio to become one of their own.

Language is powerful. The way your tongue stumbles and sifts through sounds unfamiliar to you, the uncomfortable way you must work to produce any semblance of cohesive sentence structures. It’s hard and it’s necessary to see outside any familiar circle we keep ourselves in.

Getting to know our middle daughter’s fiancé has opened an entirely new world of language, one that incorporates sounds and syllables I’ve never spoken before: Farsi. He has worked hard to learn English, and since I first talked to him back in the summer, he’s progressed so much that I am amazed. He speaks nearly five languages. I am challenging myself to learn phrases so I can show him how welcome he is when he visits here for the first time.

Last week we attended a birthday party for a friend. He was turning 50, and everyone attending was originally from Mexico. I look forward to these types of parties, not just for the food, but also for the warmth I feel slipping back into a culture that has become my own. Everyone chatted amiably as we were served heaping portions of carnitas, rice, beans, homemade salsa verde and endless corn tortillas.

The chatter filtered through my ears as my brain translated it to English, and I attempted to be part of the conversation by using what I know of Spanish. The words flowed easily some of the time. Other times I became stuck on how to convey a certain thought or feeling, the hardest part being putting the words together to make sense.

As always I felt uncomfortable. And that’s good because how are we to continue learning and growing if we stay comfortable? Speaking my broken Spanish keeps me on my toes and helps to iron out the kinks to speak better, smoother.

When I become uncomfortable, I remind myself how determined my husband was to learn English well, despite those who refused to try to understand him those many years ago when he arrived in Ohio. I remember the deeply lined faces, vexed in exasperation, not wanting to decipher what he was saying. I’ve found over the years that many of us — if someone doesn’t speak perfect English – become annoyed at having to exert any extra effort to understand.

And that makes us small.

When Sediq comes to Ohio to stay in our home, to visit and get to know where our daughter grew up — the twisting verdant valleys of Holmes County — I would hope he’s greeted warmly. I would hope he wouldn’t see the annoyed faces of people who see him as different, someone outside the circle of here, someone who doesn’t speak the perfect version of English we’ve been speaking our entire lives.

Because until we grow and learn new languages, allowing the different word patterns and even alphabets to filter through our brains, new sounds falling over us like a waterfall, we don’t have a right to be exasperated.

I’m going to grab every new sound with the vigor I felt learning to read as a child. Every single letter is a miracle.

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