I used to scoff at people who turn up their vocal volume and speak painfully slow when they talk to someone who has difficulty with English. “That ignoramus,” I would think. “Why does she think that getting louder and slower will miraculously allow comprehension?”
To the detriment of my smug judgement, the joke is really on me since that is EXACTLY what I need people to do when they are speaking Croatian to me. And because most of the time they speak fast and in my estimation, too quietly, I find myself being hopelessly and obnoxiously American by sticking my ear toward them and saying, “HUH?” in a loud voice.
Language learning, for a monolingual American, is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it can be considered a window into a person’s psyche, motivations, intent, and general personality. For example, I have discovered that I have a serious problem with jealousy as I covet others’ language abilities. This sounds somewhat ridiculous–I mean, isn’t coveting mainly about people’s houses, money, or fame? And yet, as I see the trilingual and quadrilingual Europeans in my Croatian class quickly passing and surpassing my language abilities, I notice an unpleasant and sticky sensation slowly oozing its way through my heart.
I wanted to learn this language quickly. I wanted people to marvel at how well I spoke, and to be impressed that I could hold a decent conversation. “If God could heal someone’s drug addiction instantaneously without them going through the pain of daily cravings, couldn’t he instantaneously give me the ability to speak Croatian?” I’ve reasoned on a few occasions. “I mean really, it would make things much easier for everyone!”
I am now coming to terms with the fact that I am only an average language learner–learning Croatian will be neither quick nor easy, and it will require a lot of continuous hard work and prayer. I’m also realizing that things are rarely “just a means to an end”. On the one hand, I would perhaps accomplish more in accordance with my purposes for being here could I speed up the language learning. On the other hand, having to go through this slow and arduous process is grinding out of me a certain kind of humility which is honestly quite difficult. I’m not necessarily in control of how quickly I can understand someone, and even though every fiber of my being wants desperately to understand what that person is repeating to me over and over, I am forced to learn how to be humbly gracious and patient in my non-comprehension. I am coming to accept the fact that I take one step forward and two steps back, to be okay with depending on the kindness and patience of strangers when it takes four tries to say, “crkva” and then accidentally spitting on them in the process(pronounced ts + rolling r + k+ va. Most unfortunately, this word means church, so I cannot get away from it!).
In other words, I am coming to the belief that learning a language in a foreign country is a kind of spiritual discipline. I must choose to place myself at a child’s level, always a learner, always willing to be corrected, and to be motivated by hope of growth instead of discouragement. It is this realization which is allowing me to compliment (although still somewhat grudgingly) my fellow classmates’ talent and amazing language acquisition skills. I’m not the best, but being the best would not necessarily be the best thing for my spiritual state, and this I can now accept.