The History of How Bad I Am at Learning Languages, (or, "How I Avoided Becoming a Carnie")

I'm not the world's best linguist. I'm pretty good at multiplication, but foreign languages just aren't my thing. I first realized this when God didn't let me learn a language when it came time for me to serve my Mormon mission. I thought He would, because I got good grades in high school, which meant I was smart, which meant I'd be good at learning languages. But God picks up on things that high school exams and reports do not. So He sent me to rural Canada, where I gained 15 pounds and learned to say "washroom" instead of "bathroom." It was a time of growth for me.

Later, I took matters into my own hands. I decided I would learn biblical Hebrew. Then I met Shannon, who mercifully took matters out of my hands and said, "Biblical Hebrew is the least marketable thing on the planet, behind even the ability to operate carnival rides. I won't marry you if you learn biblical Hebrew. Or become a carnie." So I had to study Arabic so that Shannon would marry me.

"Why can't you even say 'hola' right?" Grace and Violet at El Boqueron, 2015.
A couple semesters into my Arabic instruction, I asked my professor how I was doing. This particular professor is recognized worldwide as a savant of the Arabic language, and recognized campus-wide at my university as being refreshingly frank. So when I asked about my progress with the language, he said, "Well, I mean, you're okay. I mean, you're not at the bottom of the pack. You're not lighting the room on fire though, either." And nobody has better encapsulated my linguistic capacity since that day.

I remember studying Arabic in Syria, where I would figuratively bash my head against the workbooks, trying to stuff words and grammatical rules into my brain. Meanwhile, my roommate would watch James Bond movies with Arabic subtitles out in the living room. The next day in class when it came my turn to answer questions, I'd scrunch my eyes closed, searching the folds of my grey matter for words I'd learned only hours before, but which had either vanished or been replaced by Paul Simon lyrics I'd been subconsciously reviewing during my walk to class. Meanwhile, my roommate would effortlessly insert new vocabulary words into his Arabic sentences, words that he'd seen only once -- never heard -- in one of the subtitles during one of the action sequences on Live and Let Die.  By the time I arrived home from Damascus nine months after arriving, I could order a shwarma with extra garlic, tell a microbus driver to stop and let me off the bus, count to 20 with minimal stumbling, and tell people I didn't like Hizbullah.

Now, years later, I'm learning Spanish for my job. I'm allegedly proficient. I figured Spanish would be pretty easy after Arabic. And that's been true to some extent. But Spanish being easier than Arabic doesn't eliminate the fact that I blow at Spanish. Spanish and English having so many cognates actually kind of messes me up, because I can never remember if I'm supposed to add an "-o" or an "-ado" or an "-iente" or a "-mente," or if it's a straight up cognate, like "recomendable" or a not-quite-cognate, like "expectativa." Interestingly -- and somewhat masterfully -- whenver I have a 50/50 guess to make, I get it wrong 100% of the time.

Moreover, even though I pretty much blow at Arabic too, even after more than a decade of studying and using it, I keep on throwing Arabic into my Spanish sentences, especially when I'm trying to speak quickly. For instance, I say "yanni" all the time when I'm stuck in a Spanish sentence, "yanni" being an Arabic word that simultaneously means nothing and everything and that you say and linger on when you're stuck in an Arabic sentence.

But best of all is when my brain corrupts the simplest of Spanish words and then my mouth hurls them at my confused listeners. "Holo!" I greeted somebody last week. I learned how to say "Hola" in like first grade, and now, after 30 years of saying it correctly, I suddenly forgot how to say it, now that they're paying me to say it. Or, during an attempt to formulate the second most basic Spanish word, "gracias," I somehow managed to tell the waiter, "Greesa!" Sounds like a vaguely tasty Mediterranean dish. Or what an Italian pyro would say upon creating a grease fire?