Speaking my language

December 23, 2008 at 11:31 am Leave a comment

This week, I’ve been working on editing our national organization’s newsletter, poring over style manuals and grammar guidelines, trying to decipher these texts — these superintendents of American English — in a desperate attempt to figure out tiny grammatical details, like whether or not “three and a half minutes” should be hyphenated, as in “three-and-a-half minutes.”

Eventually I concluded it shouldn’t, because even though fractional numbers get a hyphen when used as an adjective (but not as a noun), the proper way to write it is probably “three and one-half” — in which case “one-half” gets the hyphen, but not “three-and-one.” I think. No one says anything about compound numbers. And anyway “three and one-half minutes” sounds a little pretentious and, well, 4,000 engineers aren’t going to notice the difference.

And this troubles me — the fact that I’m sitting here tearing my hair out over this — because I’ve been speaking English for over 26 years, and even considering I have a pretty firm grasp of grammar (although I know I tend to ignore many of the rules fairly liberally) it’s still hard to remember what’s right and what’s wrong. It troubles me because I don’t know how people do it: how do you learn another language and achieve more than just a Level 4 fluency; how do you achieve the level of spoken and written skill that you’ve developed in your native tongue over the entire course of your lifetime? How?! HOW?!!

Let’s say I want to learn Danish. I’m willing to sit down in a classroom and learn from a teacher and a book, to make mistakes and be corrected in a controlled environment, but I don’t know that I’m willing to then go to Denmark and sound like a four-year-old. I studied French for four years, was in the top of my class all the way, and what happened when I went to Quebec and was faced with French-speaking people in French-speaking situations? I chickened out and spoke English, fearing judgement of my imperfect, incomplete French by the bilingual French-Canadians.

When Keith and I go into Chipotle, he orders and converses in Spanish — delighting the Spanish-speaking employees with his near-perfect accent. When they turn to me — “Que quieres?” — I *could* tell them I quiero ensalada con frijoles negros y pollo, salsa de tomates y queso, por favor. Gracias. Instead my brain locks up: “Uhhh…chicken, please.” Because at that point I would have used up the entirety of my Spanish vocabulary (save for hamburguesa and elefante) and God help me if the people behind the counter deviate from the comfort zone of words I know and can pronounce fairly well. I will freak out inside. Because if I’m going to go through the trouble of learning a language, I want to actually use it, and if I’m going to actually use it, I want to be good at it, dammit. I want to sound smart, right from the get-go.

Is that really the key: ignoring your dignity, accepting that you’re going to be embarrassed, and putting yourself out there anyway to make mistakes and learn from them? That’s what the girl at Chipotle said. Zut.

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Entry filed under: Head & Heart. Tags: , , .

Meh, Christmas Happy New Year

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