I hate learning foreign languages. It necessarily makes you feel dumber than a three-year-old, and there are few things I hate more than feeling dumb (maybe pulling teeth or horror movies). But there is one huge benefit: with a grasp on only a handful of phrases, speaking in a foreign language forces people to be more intimate and vulnerable.
I like to use words to my advantage, spinning out sentences that make me seem self-effacing or funny or smart. The more I say, the less it really means. But when I’m in Mongolia, I cannot say, “You didn’t have to do that!” I can only say, “Thank you.” When I’m in Senegal, I cannot say, “That dress is really flattering, and wow! Your hair!” I simply say, “You are very beautiful.” When I’m in Greece, I cannot say, “I really appreciate what you did for me, that was great!” I have to say “I love you.”
Even better, sometimes words themselves are useless. There have been plenty of times when I have traveled when I couldn’t communicate at all. I had no words. So I smiled at people, and they pointed out the things they wanted me to see, and I hummed in pleasure. We shared grins, and despite the total lack of common language, I felt intimately connected to them. My favorite memories are of moments when language broke down and I held hands with someone, silently communicating our affection for each other.
I’m trying to learn Greek. I hate the learning process, but I know it will make my year in Athens much easier. And I don’t want to perpetuate the arrogant American stereotype, assuming everyone should learn my language so I don’t have to do the work (although that would be so nice). It’s comforting, in the midst of my frustration, to remember that I will not master this language, and that’s okay! My stuttering attempts to communicate will create opportunities for honesty. And if all the Greek I manage to learn escapes me, I can always reach out and simply hold someone’s hand.