It is greedy to learn a language.
It is the desire to have access to a place and history, to the tales born of a certain people’s long existence, to their wisdom and humor, without being a natural heir.
Of course, this suggests the rather charged idea that language somehow belongs to certain people more than others, and I am not in fact interested in who can lay claim to which language and its associated literature and history. But as an individual, it is not hard to acknowledge that I am a usurper when it comes to German or Arabic or Korean.
I think that’s especially the case—such as in mine—when language learning is also an act of escape. I have many languages, and many layers of them, that matter to me deeply, but I am at home in none of them. And so I try out a new one. It is a way of traveling.
Because it is the case that to demand entry to other language worlds is in some way to abandon your own, or neglect it, at least. Are there not enough books in English to read before starting on Spanish or Hebrew? Is there not enough to love and master in the English language that one should return to learning the most basic things over and over?
I am a woman. He eats an apple. It will be okay. The sun rises in the east.
Or is that the point? In a new language, it is no longer possible to convey levels of doubt or certainty, to hedge, to tell a complicated story about why things are what they are, and then arrive at a conclusion that opens the door to more possibilities.
Instead, you are left with: it is good or bad, I can or I can’t, he is happy or sad, old or young, here or there.
Of course that is only the beginning, but it is a long beginning, and it never goes away, I think. When you learn a new language as an adult you always return to these comfort zones, to the building blocks of a language, to its primary form. When I am anxious I sometimes repeat basic sentences in my head in the foreign language of my choice.
I am Chava. I am a journalist. I drank coffee in the morning. The weather is nice.
There is also comfort in being an observer.
It is freeing to peek into other windows, where on the other side, life will continue with or without you. You do not need to place yourself within it. It is not a commentary about you, or your place in this moment, or your failures. As a foreigner, you can be witness, you can partake in the drama without consequences. I mean that not only as a dereliction, but as liberation from centering everything around yourself.