A couple of weeks ago my brother and I went to Paris and then up to Holland to visit some friends I’d made when I backpacked through Europe last spring. Sitting in the living room of my friend’s parents’ farm on an overcast Sunday, listening to her family talk, my brother and I were immersed in listening to the sounds—not the meaning—of a language.
I thought back to when I visited London towards the end of my trip last year. After 12 weeks in non-English-speaking countries, I was again hearing my mother tongue. Here’s what I wrote in my journal that day:
Before this expedition I had only ventured out of the United States twice (to Montreal on a French class trip in eighth grade and to London two years back). This morning it was strange yet comforting to enter a city I already had visited.
More significantly, there was a weird greatness to hearing a language that I was fluent in. For the first time in three months there was no need to learn a few foreign words so I could pepper my speech with a little local flavor. Gracias, obragdo, merci, dank, danke, dekvji, grazie, sas efharisto, tesekkurler ederin, and thank you for that.
Last year about this time I was editing a med school applicant’s essays. As an undergrad she had majored in French. She also spoke four other languages. The gist of her main essay was that being fluent in a foreign language was comparable to understanding the human body— knowledge of both allows the beholder to enter a fascinating world that used to be verboten.
The admissions offices agreed—she got into several med schools. But having traveled through 14 countries that featured 12 different languages (Germans and Austrians sprechen sie Deutsche and the Irish speak some derivative of the Queen’s English), I’ve found that the opposite can be true. Yes, not being fluent in a language prevented me from understanding the conversation. But instead I was forced to focus on the sounds the people were making.
My ignorance lead to beauty.
When listening to English, we’re caught up in the meaning and are unable to just listen to the sounds. Is English beautiful? We English speakers will never know.
In Istanbul I was sitting at a restaurant in Sultanahmet, drinking hot tea, smoking a water pipe, and reading Thurber when the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque was broadcast. It was one of the most beautiful series of sounds I’ve heard. I had no idea what the imam was saying. The meaning of his words was irrelevant. Had I owned the key to the imam’s world, that experience wouldn’t have happened. All I would have heard was that it was time for me to unroll my prayer mat. A different door opened by not knowing what he was saying.
Is being fluent in a foreign language useful? Sure. Would it have added to my experience to communicate with the locals in their native tongues? Absolutely. Am I still planning on studying Espangnol when I return? Yep.
But there’s a lot to be said for not knowing what’s being said.