Baseball, a sport I’ve never understood. I hear names being thrown across the room. I’ve never heard of those people. Who are they? What is the class talking about? I become familiar with one name, though, Roger Clemens. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, he is a former baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros.
We watched an interview Clemens had given Mike Wallace for CBS’s 60 Minutes after he had been accused of having used anabolic steroids. We analyzed Wallace’s interview style, but the conversation slowly but steadily shifted towards doping. Where would you draw the line between “legal enhancements” and doping? More names popped up. Speakers changed quickly now, my head turned left, right, straight, and left again. Can you actually tell someone used illegal substances just by looking at his or her appearance?
I felt lost in-between all those names that didn’t mean anything to me. Why are we talking about doping? What interested me, though, was whether this Clemens guy did actually use anabolic steroids? I searched for an opportunity to jump in so that I could find an answer. But my search didn’t bring any positive results. The wheel of sports-talk kept going round and round.
I didn’t really understand why I felt a little lost or why it was harder to speak up than expected. But that’s how it was. Weird. I’m comfortable with the English language, it feels like a good friendship. It should be easier!
Building a friendship
I hate to watch dubbed movies. Unfortunately, Germany is a cold place for fans of the original movie experience. Movie theaters and TV stations screen everything in a translated version; a few exceptions prove the rule. I left the dark side in March 2007 when I threw myself into the world of original, English language movies. Yale was coming up and I wanted a head start. I rented DVDs, set the language to English, and learned. Within two or three movies, I stopped using subtitles; found them to be too distracting because I caught myself spending too much time thinking about if I agreed with the translation they had chosen.
One of the key lessons I learned during my college years goes like this: Read your books in the original language; it’s gonna make a huge difference. So that’s what I did. I spent my time with writers such as B.S. Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Paul Auster, John Hersey, and Joseph Mitchell. Book by book, I discovered yet another detail about the English language. The need to have a dictionary handy vanished sooner than I had expected. The foundation laid by my English classes in high school was stronger than anticipated. I didn’t like English classes. Maybe that’s because I don’t fancy to learn a language under pressure, where your grade is determined by a ratio of words written and errors made, maybe the reason is simply that I didn’t discover my love and feeling for languages in general and English in particular before college.
I connect writing with Yale. I’ve never written anything except in-class exams in school and academic papers in college. I was in for a leap of faith when I saw myself confronted with the task to “write down the bones,” a concept of descriptive writing by Natalie Goldberg. I observed people, their surroundings, and their conversations. I thought about life and my own identity. I wrote, learned, and wrote more. At the end of those six weeks, I had been infected with the writing virus.
Back in college, I had to push the more creative writing aside. But I found my way back. When I battled with myself over the direction my life should take, writing helped me through it. I began my first ever private journal. Guess which language I chose for it?
I’ve switched writing languages after Yale. Notes, ideas, meaningless scribbles, journal entries, letters, it’s all in English now. I feel at home when I’m surrounded by the English language. That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my native language, though. For writing purposes, I’ve just learned to appreciate the clarity English has to offer. However, I guess that this is just a personal preference, nothing more.
Life in Ghana, exactly a year after Yale, threw new challenges at me. Ghanaian English sounds different. Sitting in the parliament, I asked my fellow co-volunteer (an Englishwoman) if she would understand what the politicians were talking about. It was as difficult for her as it was for me; what a relief. With experience comes adaption, and African English eventually sounded familiar. While movies had introduced me to the sound of American English, some other volunteers and workers for the organization that had brought me to Ghana did the same for British English. I left the continent with a richer understanding of the English language.
Double feelings during the first few weeks
I’ve done this before. I feel comfortable and at home when I’m in an all English environment. Yet, the first few weeks in the U.S. confused me. I could practice everything but speaking. That’s the only thing that’s almost impossible to practice when you are not in an environment that speaks the language in question. I knew I had managed to get talking before, so I didn’t fear.
I had forgotten to count in my mind. During the first few weeks, I felt comfortable yet uncomfortable. I have played through entire conversations in my mind. I know what I want to say and how to say it. Then, as soon as the first sentence leaves my mouth, I think “what are you doing? That’s not what I wanted to say or how I wanted to word it. I know better than that!”
Thinking about it, I’ve come to realize two things. First, there is a difference between being in a group of people who are in the same boat and being among native speakers. At Yale, every student around me faced the same situation; English was their second language. That made it easier because I didn’t feel the pressure to get it right. They made mistakes, I made mistakes. We were all there to learn. That’s different now.
Second, there is a pattern. It’s always the same. It’s all about practice and getting used to speaking a language again. It takes a bit of time and courage to accept and eventually overcome the misalignment between how my mind speaks and how my mouth speaks. And I’m angry with myself every time I fail to speak up. But I can feel the change. It’s getting easier with every day and every conversation. Eventually, everything will be okay. It worked at Yale, it worked in Ghana, and I’m all in to make it work here and improve my language skills.
Lesson number two: I wish I would have known that it takes so much effort to get talking again.