A journal of my infancy

July 10, 2007

An ancillary yet durable fear – my personality’s gallbladder, let’s call it – is that I will somehow forget the whole of the English language. To fixate on a single, temporarily-forgotten word whose connotation matches your thoughts as well as possible, or to describe that word, wringing your own entrails to divine its first letter or its number of syllables: these are ordinary experiences enough, but to forget the entirety of the only language you speak is nothing short of horror. To forget English would, for me, mean being reduced to my partial knowledge of German and French, plus a considerable amount of impotent gesturing; and because I love words, love to swaddle the most recondite members of our lexicon, the idea of having the English language, whose nuances I have worked so hard not simply to know but to render part of myself, snatched from me is enough to make me shudder, however unlikely it may be that the thought could come true.

Which is all as much to say that, yes, at this point I am shamefully monolingual and that I presently feel the weight of this dependency, this rigidity or this American middle class sine qua non, as something more akin to a pain than an itch. I feel not simply annoyed, but virtually disabled by the fact that I’ve somehow failed to grow fluent in another language in the 25 years of opportunity I’ve had; or as if that failure is itself somehow a stigma not on my facility with language (of which I’ve frankly never had cause to regard as anything but exceptional), but on my intellectual history, as if it were to prove that the arabesques into which I take such pleasure in shaping the English language belie not curiosity with the possibilities of language but an unshakable laziness with respect to content.

But let me be easy on myself, for I’m working hard to teach myself French, am taking advantage of as many resources as my embarrassment of the difficulty with which that language issues from me allows; but at the same time, I am motivated primarily by a spite the object of which is the torpid manner I’ve heretofore used in approaching language; a spite the object of which, in short, is myself. That an easy, forgiving attitude towards my past mistakes — even the objection, tempting because there’s an undeniable truth there, that dwelling on the mistakes of an unchangeable past is fruitless — becomes obviously counterproductive in light of my motivations.

But that the whole of this process has had a decisively negative tinge to it with respect to my own laziness or my past objections doesn’t adequately describe the principle frustration which I’ve confronted in a steadily increasing degree as I approach the end of the textbook: that is, how absolutely infantile my command over the language is. To simply not know a language is, in that respect, less frustrating than to know it partially; to use words in a way that feels like coughing up inflatable furniture is much worse than the resigned placidity of someone who can’t speak the language at all.

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t known for my facility with English; but to have to face again that unremembered time is a much more difficult feat than simply disciplining myself to study everyday.


2 Responses to “A journal of my infancy”

  1. ftaghn Says:

    Although it’s great to pursue language study with such vigour, it’s important to keep in mind that learning a language, while frustrating in the extreme (especially so in the earlier stages), one needs to keep a relaxed mind and shake off the mistakes made without being overly harsh on yourself.

    Would you rather cough up inflatable furniture or sit on the floor?

  2. Nathaniel Says:

    Good advice. I’ve chilled out a lot since I wrote this entry. I’m still frustrated, but I’ve realized that I’m making progress as quickly as I possibly can.

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