Other tongues

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:

  • Quince
  • Venison
  • Quark
  • Chestnut paste
  • 8 zillion kinds of chocolate bars

And there are the things one doesn’t find, and that I miss:

  • Chocolate chips
  • Miso
  • Kimchi, hot peppers, spiciness in general
  • Kale

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.

Quiringh van Brekelenkam, Confidential Conversation – 1661

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?

18 thoughts on “Other tongues

  1. I hear you. It’s a struggle to be able to surface yourself in full ability in a different language. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience, and I hope you find some kindred soul soon, for it’s important to be able to express yourself. I never had that wrenching experience because here in Texas, there’s Spanish spoken everywhere. But my nine months deep in the heart of Mexico, were devastating. Though people spoke “Spanish” in the surface, there was not the nurturing of my mind that I need to live.

    Amazingly, here in the States I’ve come to find some people that are not just Spanish or English speakers, but readers and thinkers, and I’m thankful that my abilities in both languages allow me that deep communication that my soul speaks.

    My spiritual life and the Bible reading and studying we do at my congregation, have also been an unbelievable source of comfort and intellectual stimulation.

    Keep at it, don’t give up, you’ll come out of it a new and better version of yourself.

    1. Yes, there is surface communication, and then deeper communication for which words are only a vehicle, and sometimes an obstacle … but in general, we humans need words. It’s up to us to invest them with their full power and meaning, that they may truly nourish us. A connection to spiritual texts of any kind can help us with this, too.

  2. This:

    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.


    I get you. I’ve lived this. I’m living it. I could never come back to a monolingual life, ha ha ha.

  3. Even one of your grocery words puzzled me: quark. A subatomic particle? I looked it up and found that it’s (of course) a dairy product. We also found that people in and around Biel ate horsemeat as a matter of course.
    I’ve never lived in a place where I couldn’t speak the language. Wishing you patience and success with connecting to others.

    1. I forgot about horsemeat, yes that is everywhere. I still haven’t been able bring myself to eat that — venison is delicious though. And quark, if you can do dairy!

      1. I had horsemeat when, as a school student, staying with a French family — and snails too, a bit like rubbery mushroom in butter — but it just reminded me of slightly stringy beef. Wouldn’t mind trying it again, but in France or, indeed, Switzerland!

  4. I did try to learn Welsh in the far west of Wales, where it was most people’s first language, but found it a frustrating experience as I kept being corrected … in English! Where I am now, on the borders, it’s scarcely needed though road signs, notices and place-names are much more comprehensible thanks to those couple of years of desultory learning.

    I’ll pass a veil over a childhood in Hong Kong, when I failed to get any grip on Cantonese…

    1. As Lizzie says, patient and tolerant friends are key to learning. Correction is needed but also the chance to make mistakes! My son keeps correcting my German pronunciation and it’s hard to get into any kind of flow when I get interrupted every time I start to try to say anything. It’s hard to convince him that the nuances of pronouncing “ich” are not the most important thing.

  5. Quark! I love it and wish it were available in the US. As for the language skills, a year in francophone Africa taught me that dogged determination, along with a willingness to look/sound like an idiot, was the key. Beer and wine helped — and many patient friends. Good luck with all of this. And guests might be able to bring you chocolate chips (possibly chili powder, too, if it isn’t verboten).

    1. The willingness to look/sound like an idiot is what I sadly did not have in my younger days, when I had ample opportunities to learn languages. If only I had known then …

  6. You’re living in Switzerland too? I’m living in Geneva for a year. I bought Kimchi from Coop yesterday so you might want to try the international aisle of your nearest Coop.

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