I don’t believe that people residing in a monolingual world appreciate how difficult it is to learn a new language, especially as an adult. “Stress” was one of today’s topics for my monthly English conversation class. Not surprisingly, carrying on an English conversation caused as much stress as anything else in the lives of my students. When they’re trying to talk, they wave their hands, and their eyes search mine for help. You can tell that thoughts are bubbling up inside of them and they have ideas they want to communicate, but the right words won’t come. How frustrating to have something you desperately want to say and be limited to the vocabulary of a preschooler to express it.
My husband and I have firsthand experience with communication challenges in another country, specifically Mexico. We studied Spanish there for several summers and thought we were doing well until we realized we were operating with a vocabulary about as sophisticated as that of the four-year-old son of the woman we were staying with. Even as our vocabularies grew, it was still easy to make mistakes. I remember walking out of a grocery store with two ice cream cones, two scoops on each cone and wondering how that happened. “Crazy gringa,” the clerk must have said to himself, “eats two ice cream cones at once. Why didn’t she just order four scoops?” (Fortunately my husband came to my aid and ate one cone.) But mistakes like this were easier to live with than the frustration at not being able to talk to other adults like we would talk to our English-speaking peers. It’s hard to share big ideas when you have only a thousand words to work with.
A Chinese woman in today’s session talked about the stress of having no one to talk to besides her family members, because she found English almost impossible. Her son told her to only watch English language programs on TV, but she didn’t enjoy looking at programs she couldn’t understand. She felt so happy when she learned that her new neighbor spoke Chinese. Finally she could converse with someone nearby using “grown-up” words.