Speaking in tongues

For a few months, every couple of years since I was 20, I follow a predictable chain of events. I get enthusiastic, or the guilt climbs to a point where I cannot ignore it anymore, and I resolve to learn whatever language I am most surrounded by, writes Kate Oktay.

Kate Oktay
Kate Oktay
I have spent long periods of time as the only native English speaker surrounded by friends or family or in countries where everyone speaks a language that I only speak in snippets of words.

My lack of talent for linguistics is matched only by my boundless laziness and intellectual incuriosity. Other people, people who speak other languages with a fluid easiness, listen to conversations intently and make guesses as to what words might be. I largely tune it out and wonder what is for lunch. Or dinner. Or second breakfast.

Because it is just bad manners to move to someone else’s country and not learn any of their language, I reluctantly make the minimum requirement solely in order to not be "that" white person, and with audible groaning, launch into another flailing attempt.

I get text books, and download Duolingo again, and buy nice pens and a crisp new book to write things in. I write an ambitious new plan for how many words I am going to learn daily, and spend delightful minutes imagining my new life as a fluent speaker of Korean, or German, or Maori, or Chinese, or Turkish.

I dream about the beautiful new life I will lead and gleefully imagine the terrible things I will get to do. Like Bertrand, the awful Frenchman I met in Shanghai, who started a new job and pretended he didn’t speak any Mandarin for a month. His staff, understandably, because of his unremitting sliminess, complained about the stupid foreigner in his presence on an hourly basis. Then he called an all-company meeting where he harangued them in their own language for 20 minutes and fired the worst offenders. Awful but, honestly, also fairly wonderful.

My ham-fisted attempts at language learning is in stark contrast to many of my polylingual friends. One friend who speaks fluent Albanian, French, English, Turkish and reasonable Russian, Italian and Spanish recently started learning Japanese "for fun". There is nothing I could imagine as less fun. Painting is fun. Reading is fun. Drinking tea and cackling with friends is fun. Hours of rote learning phrases and verb conjugation and the thudding dullness of grammar is without any redeeming qualities and on a par with doing calculus equations. I would rather clean the bathroom.

I do, however, highly recommend learning enough of another language that few others around you understand. Being able to complain about the place you are in, make plans to leave, or tell off your child is 10 out of 10.

Other mothers watch their children being all kinds of obnoxious, and have to mask a face of calm, saying through gritted teeth "Settle down, please or we will have to go home soon darling" as their 7-year-old leaps joyfully from the back of the chair, arms windmilling dangerously close to Aunty Sarah’s head. With another language, though, you can quietly say "you are doing my head in, and if you don’t knock it off, I am leaving right now" while looking meaningfully towards the door. People will think that your child is beautifully behaved, when in fact you can just threaten them with leaving plates full of cake more effectively.

A few months ago, imagining living at least part-time on a white-sanded Mediterranean beach with a glassy cerulean sea dotted with Greek islands, I went through my most recent attempt. I made my family only speak in Turkish to me. I stole my daughter’s books and read them. I only listened to Turkish music. I got disproportionately angry when anyone spoke in English and accused them of being unsupportive even though explaining anything outside everyday conversation to me was an arduous and frustrating process.

For five weeks I drove everyone crazy, and then I missed a day. Then I forgot to bring my word list with me, and another day I really wanted to listen to Morning Report because I was sick of stupid folk music, and then a week later I got really cross with my husband and couldn’t list grievances adequately. With every closing border I lost more and more enthusiasm. My use of Turkish decreased in direct proportion with the likelihood of living in a sunny paradise in the near future. And after all, what is the point of disabling your own ability to communicate when you can incapacitate someone else’s? So we are all back to English again at least until international flights start looking promising.


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