African Languages On My Brain

I turned into the dirt road with the hand painted sign of the Buddhist retreat with a sigh of relief. It was actually starting, rest and relaxation so that I could start memorizing Amharic and prepare for the other African languages.  My car rocked back and forth in the soft sand but slowly and surely approached the gate to my new inward adventure.

My mind travels back to my adventures with learning language 10 years ago. I acquired 5 European languages in 32 months. I taught myself s language at home with available technology, computer, workbooks C D’s and cassettes. I remembered walking to the bus in Mexico or Cuba with earphones, practicing the sounds in my head. I remembered long walks in the snow while in Quebec softly repeating words in French   to be understood by the waitress at the coffee house. I loved it when the Brazilians thought that I was Brazilian when I ordered in the local, native restaurants.  I smiled, remembering the Italians teasing me about drinking “warm milk” instead of “real coffee”. I grimaced, remembering the pain in the faces of the Namibians as I practiced German with them. So much pain in speaking the language that reflected apartheid…

So here I am, leaving my home and finding a retreat of silence. My life has become too cluttered to attach to new ideas. My frontal lobes are on overload with the details of my daily life. So I go into the silence without family, friends, TV or any other noise and work on a language, which has eluded me, and write a grant to direct the rest of my journey into African Languages.

People assume that learning languages must be easy for me. I have acquired many and flirting with others. Languages intrigue my brain and stimulate me. They entice me and beckon me to follow them. Languages are like romances for me. Some I flirt with like the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean that is written on the signs in the Canadian markets. The calendars in my doctor’s office demand my attention as I study the characters and rule out Hindi, Arabic, Amharic and stand mesmerized by the script until he comes in and tells me the language of the script and the culture of the people.

Then there are the languages that I date, Chinese again. When I presented my research in China, I befriend the staff and amuse them with my clumsy attempts at Mandarin. My brain learns to snatch words out of the air when I hear them and make sense of them. I must say that I dated Dutch by speaking a few words while I waited at the airport. At one time we were familiar enough that I could tell the difference between Dutch and German. We have since grown apart.

Some languages I have slept and lived with and then there are those that I have married. The brain starts to lose its ability to recognize sounds at 8 months gestation when it begins to recognize the sound of its mother’s language.  This process continues as the brain prunes itself of the unneeded sounds and the child starts to communicate at 11 or 12 months.  Learning to communicate in a way that can be understood is an inherent survival skill.

The brain adapts to the original language by hearing the language repeatedly even at a state of rest.  I replicate this process and go to bed listening to language while I sleep so my brain attaches to the target language without my conscious effort, just like it would for an infant’s brain. Subconsciously I work on receptive language.

I have slept with Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German. Do you get better with relationships by having many lovers? I guess you learn some things about yourself and the lover that you use with the next one. I have relationships with people who speak Spanish, French and Portuguese. There is a natural reason to maintain my connection. So we have married. Over time my husbands have become comfortable with our co-habitation arrangement. No relationships with people who speak German and Italian. Our bonds grow weak and virtually disappear. I don’t see those bonds becoming re-attached again.

Here I am sitting in a cottage on the top of the San Diego Mountains trying to determine how to approach my new love Amharic. We can’t spend the night together because there is no electrical outlet.  So we spend time getting to know each other. I have my book on Ethiopian culture, which I read first.   I play Amharic games on iPod in iPhone. No more boom box or walk man even though I miss them. I spend some time on my computer practicing words but I know it is not enough. I need to spend more time with the books.

Learning African languages is committing to an arranged marriage. I have no problem with arranged marriages as long as I am part of the decision-making.  I object vehemently when people assume that since I court, date, sleep with and marry so many that it shouldn’t matter who I romance. This is simply not true. You can’t decide whom I marry even though I am polygamous and polyamorous with languages any more than I can tell you whom to marry.

Someone suggested that learning Romanian would be easy because of the other Romance languages. Some suggested that I not leave German and Italian since I know them well. Then there are those who feel that I should marry the more obscure African languages who have very little written literature because they are uncontaminated by western influence. I am western and I need the connection. Languages are steeped in politics, slavery, colonialism, apartheid, occupations, imperialism etc… It is a constant tug of war. I choose Amharic, Swahili, Hausa, Zulu and Arabic. So the journey begins and where it ends … unknown. So is it easy to have many spouses and lovers? You tell me???



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10 responses to “African Languages On My Brain

  1. Mr yacoub

    A good topic

  2. Tariku Hussein

    Go for Amharic, definitely Amharic, an added reason being that it has lots of vibrant literature and Ethiopia is not a very English-speaking country at all. While your capacity for love is praiseworthy, too much linguistic promiscuity can prevent your from going deep enough with anyone in particular.

    • Yes, my friend, that is the danger or linguistic promiscuity. So I have to devote a great deal of attention to my husbands through my work and travel so that we can deepen our connection.

  3. carterarchitecture

    Focus on what is important to you. I love your communication in my English. Follow your dreams and your heart..

  4. Tezeta G

    oh! wonderful.

  5. St. Carries,

    Wonderful post — Love your analogies of romancing, dating, sleeping with, marrying, polygamous, etc. All terrific!

    I chose to read your post from many, as I used to work with international people. Through that work, I have learned bits and pieces of many languages. While I’m only fluent in English, and have some reasonable abilities in German, my knowledge is still eclectic. I say polyamorous tendencies are AOK! 🙂

    Your meaningful exploration is to be admired!

    Thank you for sharing,


  6. Abdelmjid Seghir

    This is so wow!!!
    I really loved how you made tose analogies. I never thought doing so much dating would sound this smart rather than naughty! HAHA
    …And OMG! It seems that you have been to everywhere! You’re living my dream ❤
    I have learnt/acquired 4 languages; Arabic, French, English and Spanish. I think each language has something special in it, I love each one in a different way. I'd love to learn more, I just can't decide which language should be next.
    Great post, mom 🙂

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