I’m talking to my friend about biology. He works around the university on the streets of San Jose, keeping watch over cars that are parked on the streets. Occasionally when someone hops in a car to drive away, he leaves our conversation to collect tips. His name is Diesid.
We’re near a small city park looking at a sidewalk bush filled with life. Thorn-shaped bugs live off the sap of its immature branches, the male-type harvesting food and the female-type taking guard over the younglings on the more woody branches. A spider is seen eating a younger thorn-bug, while flies and ants feast on the sap which falls on the leaves below the thorn-bugs. I’m astounded by the level of diverse and connected life that can be found less than a meter from the busy and trashed street of San Jose, and more, that I can now have conversations in full Spanish about completely novel topics.
I’m also astounded by which words I still don’t know.
—Mae, es como…una palabra para algo que se da cuenta de.–
–Something you realize?–
–yes, yes. It’s like, to see.—
–Ahhhh! To watch?—
–Yes, but no.–
After a few minutes I learn the words for “to Note” and “to Observe,” quite simply “Notar” and “Observar.”
One thing I didn’t know before my visit to Costa Rica was that, the phrase for Realize is Darse cuenta de, while Realizar itself means To make real. And then I found out that the phrase meaning Actually is actually En realidad while Actualmente means Currently. The word Corriente does not mean Current as in recent, but rather Ordinary or Current as in a river, which I’m currently realizing actually makes sense; why else would we call something ordinary “mainstream?”
Between the shores of English and Spanish, it’s easy to drown in such a strong current. Words that used to seem so simple in my first language become strangely unfamiliar now that I return to them. For example, if I asked you to tell me the difference between the following three sentences–
“Oooooh, I’ve never seen that before.”
“Oooooh, I’ve never noticed that before.”
“Oooooh, I’ve never realized that before.”
–it would be very difficult. The difference of course has something to do with the level of thought considered with respect to the object. But for example, when have you noticed something without realizing it, or vice versa? Nonetheless, it doesn’t give you a headache every time you have to use one in conversation. With your natural language there’s no big leap between conception and vocalizing; it just happens. When you learn a new language, you have to deconstruct what you already know and make it explicit, and then hopefully make it natural again.
Your natural language is like walking. Walking is the kind of habit that you’ve done for so long that you don’t even need to think about doing it. You’ve been walking since you were a child, and have learned to walk so well that you can just walk without thinking about it. You don’t need think about little things that do while walking because engrained your head. When do same thing over over again get used doing out thinking out it. Walking habit so long don’t need think it. The less conscious attention you put into it, the easier it actually is. And learning a new language is like learning to ride a unicycle. The destination is the same, and you can get there by walking, but now you have to plan out every move to learn the new method.
To switch it up, let’s picture a system of houses that represent concepts, each one inhabited by a word from your natural language, English. All you have to do is introduce the new language, Spanish, to his English partner, and have them share the house.
Some of the pairs are best buds already and settle in without any fanfare. The Latin scientific words leap into each other arms because they’ve known each other for a thousand years. Others have a great time getting to know each other, finding more in common than they had expected. <<Hi, my name is Pocket, and yours? Oh, Bolsito. Hey you’re not Bolso’s little brother are you? Yes, he’s living with Bag. I had no idea him and I were related>>!
But some of the pairs are a bit out of whack. We treat them nicely and say they’re in a “transitional period” in their life. When you introduce English to their transitional phrases, some go more smoothly than others:
<<Okay However, this is Sin embargo, and he’ll be crashing at your place for a while. I know right now he sounds like without a prohibition of trade, but just work with him and maybe he’ll start to make sense>>. <<Therefore, this is, uhhh, Por lo tanto. He’s…yes, kind of sounds like Because of that which is so many, which makes next to no sense>>…
Some pairs just don’t work out, and you end up with cases like For, who is now living with both Para and Por, because Por has been seeing other words behind For’s back, like Because, Per, and sometimes even Through.
And of course you have your relative phrases, some of which you’ve known you’re whole life but have never really understood. You knock on their doors and ask awkwardly to come in. You know that this entire visit they will criticize you for putting prepositions at the end of your sentences and using For who instead of For whom.
You sit in some of these dusty, mysterious houses and wonder anxiously how much you actually want to learn Spanish.
Once you’ve finally paired up your languages, you let English lead the way. English shows Spanish the rules of the house, where everything goes, when to wake up and when to go to bed. <<You report to me>>, English says to Spanish. If you want to speak the Spanish word for beans, for example, you go to greet beans at the door first and ask to see frijoles, who sits meekly in the corner behind beans, if he’s home at all.
Even on the streets, the English traffic cop runs the show. He knows how every verb, object, and subject work in the city, because he’s been doing this his entire life. He looks at the new rules for Spanish word traffic and scoffs. <<Direct object before a verb? If that’s how you want it. But things are gonna be a lot more difficult this way>>. He continues moving traffic by English laws, then flipping them around in a laborious process right before traffic leaves the city.
But of course, this is not how it works. English is not the authority. For that matter, neither is Spanish, or the houses, or the city itself. You start seeing words that really don’t sound the same in the other language, ideas that are unique to only one language. Phrases like Estar de pie and sobresaliente, which, sure, can be translated to Standing and Outstanding, but not without losing a certain feeling for that word. It’s not that one language is flawed when compared to the other. It’s that each language describes something beyond language itself.
And then you realize something. Words are really just signs/symbols/stuff representing the thoughts/feelings/things already felt inside your mind/spirit/whatever. Your things make up the life you’ve already started to think/feel/do without the help of language. That is to say, there is something between the languages that everybody already has inside them.
On one hand, words allow us to do things that would otherwise be impossible without them: to label, logic, create, and at our most powerful, do things to each other’s whatevers. However, using words, we construct our whatevers into a network of stuff abstracted from the real thing itself. In this way language sets limits to the things we do in our whatever, which can only be expanded by doing outside the stuff of language.
This is why fluency is so hard to obtain.
Once again, I couldn’t find the word, so I started describing it to Diesid.
–Es como, no sé. Es como, una bomba.–
–It’s like a bomb?–
–Yes.– I swoop my hands up and together, then let them diverge and drop from the top.
–Si. The type of cloud.–
–Ohhh. Hongo!– (Hongo means both mushroom and fungus.)
–That’s right. Mushroom. So, this tree here, and most plants really, have fungus attached to their roots. The fungus helps the plant absorb nutrients and water, because it is better at doing that than the plant is. In return, the plant gives the fungus its carbohydrates–…
–Si. But lo mas tuanis is that the fungus can reach other plants too, and connect one plant to another through a network of fungus. Ademas, when let’s say a parasite attacks one of the plants, it can use the fungus to actually send an alert message to the other plants–.
–The plants are communicating–?
–Of course. Even though they have evolved for so long, separately from each other, they’re still part of the same system–.
After a few more hours the rain starts up, as it always does in the afternoon, and the time comes for me to attend my internship. Before I leave the park, Diesid tells me one more thing.
–Lo mismo entre todos nosotros es que todos estamos aprendiendo.–
The thing that connects us all is that we are all learning.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho