Life in Switzerland does require some adjustments. For example, there are things one routinely finds in the grocery store here that one does not in the States, some more welcome than others:
- Chestnut paste
- 8 zillion kinds of chocolate bars
And there are the things one doesn’t find, and that I miss:
- Chocolate chips
- Kimchi, hot peppers, spiciness in general
The biggest adjustment for me, of course, is trying to speak another language. Actually, three other languages — and that’s the hardest part. Intimidating as it has always been to leave behind my comfortable mother tongue, it now seems as though it would be comparatively simple to be immersed in a foreign environment with a single grammar and vocabulary to take in.
Now, living between the French and German parts of Switzerland, I’m bombarded with both, with their quite different characters. Then there is the Swiss German dialect (which within itself has a number of variants, but let’s not even get into that). It’s fortunate that I learned French in school, and I’m grateful to realize how much actually stuck, but I still have a long way to go, especially in conversation. My German is much more rudimentary, though I can say and understand simple sentences. I don’t even try with Swiss German, even though it’s the main language in all casual situations. There, I can understand a fair amount from context, tone of voice and body language, but the complicated sounds and different grammar are just too confusing to try to go into at this point.
With the more formal languages, I have to hear something twice before the unfamiliar sounds begin to reassemble into any kind of meaning. And when I try to speak, the “foreign language” part of my brain switches on, but with no discrimination between French and German. Words from both languages come out, or jam up in my head so I can’t say anything, even in English. This makes me appear — and feel — incompetent, clumsy, and stupid, things I am not.
It’s very frustrating, but also makes me aware of the struggle that so many have to go through when they are displaced from their own country and have to make their way in a new language — often one that is much further removed from their own. French and German are connected with English at the roots, and yet I still find them difficult. Imagine trying to learn something that is much more foreign in its structure and sound quality. Yet untold numbers of people do this, every day.
It becomes ever more clear to me how much we depend on language to move freely in the soul realm, as we depend on our healthy, well-functioning bodies in the physical realm. My lack of language skills makes me feel as though something in me is paralyzed, missing, or out of control.
But just as a paralyzed or disabled person still has an essential core of being that is not defined by these limitations, I know that I am still myself, there is an “I” here that senses and feels and thinks. If no one sees or hears or understands me, though, my ability to function in the world will be severely hampered. I will be isolated, cut off not just from others, but also from a part of myself that needs interaction in order to progress further.
Without communication, without connecting to other human beings, we cannot fully unfold our essential self. That’s why the struggle will continue, and why I find it a privilege to be able to have this experience.
We are given our mother tongue as a wonderful gift, as we are also given our body, in unconsciousness. To re-create either on a more conscious level will necessitate some awkwardness, some discomfort, and a large amount of failure. Yet this is something we human beings are called to do, I think: to go beyond what is given us by nature, to re-make ourselves so that we can connect to the creative spirit in full awareness. I admire all who have made the effort, and I will try to follow their example.
Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? What was it like for you?