Language is awesome.
I’m a language nerd. I found out the other day what the difference is between an acronym and an initialism, and it made me so happy. So very, very happy.
A little too happy, some people might say.
But then again, some people are silly.
This post comes in two parts, and both of them have to do with language.
Part one: I DON’T SPEAK POLISH!
I was living in Poland for five months, and in that time, I learnt enough Polish to be able to excuse myself when bumping into someone on the street, to let it be known in Polish that I don’t understand polish, and to buy a bus ticket.
Oh yes, I also learnt to say thank you, to the people who were so very patient with my faffing about.
So it was an interesting experience, living in a country where you don’t speak the language. At first it was cool, and then it was stressful. Being surrounded by people all talking in a language you don’t understand is exhausting. You find yourself straining your ears, trying so hard to pick up some word, any word, that you understand. But luckily, this part doesn’t last too long. Soon enough, it becomes kind of like a hum, like the sound of a car engine while you drive or the noise a fan makes. You start putting it in the background and pretty much switching off to all the sounds that don’t make sense. When someone does happen to speak English though, especially when you’re not expecting it, it’s like a fire cracker goes off in your head.
BAM is that person talking to meeeee?!?!?
The first time this happened, I was wandering around town, and an American couple walked past. I literally just stood there and stared at them with a massive grin on my face until they turned a corner. It was, well, creepy, but UH-MAZING.
And once you’ve hit this point, it’s not so bad, but there is still the underlying intimidation and fear of those instances when you have no choice but to talk to someone, and even though it’s ridiculous (because a lot of people speak english and this is a dumb thing to fear anyway) you still find yourself worrying that you’re going to look like the worlds biggest idiot.
My shoes broke. The sole of my shoe was falling off and I was getting snow in my socks, but I still put off buying a new pair of shoes for a stupidly long time because I was so stressed about having to go into a shop and talk to someone.
The point that follows this is what I like to think of as, the point of resignation. The fear of needing to interact goes away, but it will continue to feel a bit annoying. Most of the time, people are very nice about your inability to speak the local language, but you do get the select few individuals who won’t even try.
Like, zero. They won’t listen to your attempts, they don’t watch your body language. It’s frustrating as hell when all you want to do is buy a freaking stamp, and the shop keeper won’t even look at you pointing at stamps, miming the action of a stamp, or attempting to say the word ‘stamp’. These people are the minority, but it’s infuriating.
The final point you reach in not understanding, is the most interesting, because you’ve been surrounded by this language for so long that, in some small way, you do start to understand. You know what people mean when they speak to you, even though you can’t respond. I don’t know if it’s subconsciously being able to know enough words here and there to form a meaning, or if it’s simply a case of getting really good at reading body language, but either way, somehow you know.
Alternatively a massive dip in your sanity could also be the case here, after months and months of oral isolation, but who knows.
What this has taught me: it ishard hard really hard to live in a country where your knowledge of the local language is either non-existent, or limited. And I find myself getting angry at people who take speaking english for granted and bad mouth those who don’t. I mean, we are so, so, SO lucky that english is our first language, because it is the most widely spoken in the world. For a language like Polish, or Hungarian, where the only place that language is widely spoken is in that native country, I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be.
So never again shall I be impatient with someone I don’t understand, or consider them to be unintelligent, and never again will I fling out that all too easy to utter phrase of “Why can’t you just say it in english!”
Because not being able to understand sucks enough; the last thing we need is assholes making it harder.
Part two: Not strictly true
So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about clichés and generalizing and how often and easy it is to throw out some per-prepared spin of language that doesn’t really mean the right thing.
What drew my attention to this was the phrase “story of my life.”
I actually have a bit of a beef with the phrase “story of my life”, not just because of it’s extreme overuse, but also it’s extreme WRONGNESS.
I mean, yes it’s annoying when someone has already eaten the last cookie, but is that really the “story of your life”?
And your car has broken down twice in a month, but this doesn’t make having a broken down car the “story of your life”. No. It means you own a shitty car, or you’re a bad driver.
Quite frankly, unless it’s actually your life story, there is no instance when “story of my life” is appropriate. You could of course be referring to THE story, that one story that is the very best one ever and is the one story that makes your whole life, but do you really want that to be about the last cookie or a shitty car?
You’re talking about an irritating instance that’s happened more then once and you’ve failed to do something about it. You’re using the wrong cliché.
Clichés and idioms are funny things. They’re so easy to use because, a lot of the time, they do sum up a feeling or thought about something. Clichés become clichés because they do, a lot of the time, just work. It’s like song lyrics. Rhyming “heart” with “tore apart”, or “tears” with “fears” and “years”. It may not be original, but it just works.
And it’s not using clichés that I have an issue with. SO LONG AS IT’S RIGHT. When you start throwing out these lines automatically, things change. Do you really mean what it sounds like you mean, or do you mean something completely different.
The other problem with clichés is when they do become automatic, because that devalues language. If you’re not even thinking about what you’re saying and what it means, why say anything?
Use your words, but bear in mind to use them well.
You wouldn’t want to run the risk of being misconstrued.