#12: The Language Singer

#12: The Language Singer

“Seen chowww”, I said, trying to mimic the inflection of my instructor. I had asked the sweet Vietnamese lady to teach me a few words in her native tongue, and now I was mimicking her like a myna bird waiting for a cracker.

“Oh, you learn fast, Susan! You go to Vietnam, you learn in no time!”

Oh, yes. I am so sure.

I don’t know when my fascination and love of language began. Maybe it was during those two years of Spanish I took in high school and the field trips we would take to the taco joint in the mall. It’s hard to say. I mean, that alone made it clear that learning a new language, in addition to being rewarding in the area of interpersonal communication, throws wide the doors of exciting opportunities.

A recent purge of dust-laden books on my bookshelves upstairs yielded a Spanish Biblia, Spanish-English dictionaries, Express Track to Russian workbook and audio program, a Russian-English dictionary, and notebooks full of Romanian grammar and vocabulary.

You’re fluent in all those, you ask? Oh, please. Don’t get me started.

The reality is that my love for learning and desire to speak other languages fluently has proved to be a one-sided relationship. Like a crush on the cute and totally unattainable high school football hero, it has been a love that has at once left me smitten and starry-eyed and feeling like a geeky schoolgirl.

The problem, though, is that this is not a crush that lets me know he’s unattainable. He talks to me in the hallway and makes eye contact with me while giving me a charming smile. He takes notice of my studiousness and compliments my ability to mimic sounds. Then he strolls off to kiss the cheerleader waiting at the end of the hallway. “Who is that?”, she asks. “Oh, just some girl from class”, he replies. “She has great enunciation”.

This has been the extent of my relationship with foreign language. I study, I memorize, I mimic and pronounce. And then someone speaks to me, and my brain stutters. What? What was that? I don’t understand. Oh, wait, maybe I do, but now I can’t remember what to say in response. They’re staring at me. They think I’m stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything now. Maybe they’ll just think I’m mute.

But thank the Lord for music. Ah, sweet music. It is slow and rehearsed and allows memorized words to flow. This is why many well-known stutterers, like Mel Tillis, don’t stutter when they sing. The pressure is off, the music sweeps away any anxiety, and language comes.

I am the Mel Tillis of foreign language learning. The words come when I sing. Songs I learned during my two years in Romania and my time spent in Bolivia and various places around the world stay with me, like treasured snapshots of good times and sweet memories. I stumble upon them in the shower, in the car, and throughout my day. I worship with them and dance to them. My heart soars with the joy of finally being able to set free those words buried somewhere in my mind.

I don’t know where my crush on foreign language will lead. I still study. I still try to learn. I still listen and mimic and get ridiculously happy when I learn a new word, like a child discovering a hidden treasure. I still dream of communicating well in a language other than English — someday.

And in the meantime, I sing.


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