Are you in a language learning slump? Lacking the energy to read a textbook, listen to an educational podcast, or flip through digital flash cards? I am.
Even though I love learning additional languages, now is not a great time for it. The pandemic has dampened my outward energies. Personal loss has redirected my interests.
I did try to re-spark my passion for Arabic, by purchasing online tutoring lessons through NaTakallam. My tutor was a warm and delightful woman, my age, who had lived in several countries in the Middle East before arriving in Europe. We could have been a great language learning match. Instead, as she introduced herself in Arabic and my brain searched for recognizable words, I accepted that the effort was beyond me. We met for just one session.
Still, language can be a refuge. I am enjoying my first one, English. Online I search for etymologies, and learn that ‘power’ is related to ‘pasha’ and ‘despot’. The first half of ‘wisdom’ relates to ‘vista’ and ‘veda’ – words about knowing and seeing. ‘Guest’ and ‘host’ come from the same root word, as does ‘stranger’.
How language can heal
In Indigenous academic articles and literature, I see the idea of language as medicine. Words or prayer can be strengthening and soothing. Learning an ancestral language can help heal people’s wounds.
Since I don’t know what my ancestors spoke before English, perhaps searching etymologies – often all the way to the Proto-Indo-European root – is my own way of re-rooting myself.
I also take refuge in the words of beloved authors. Robyn Davidson, an Australian woman famous for traveling by camel alone across a desert, has a collection called Travelling Light. I read it for the first time this year and loved her complex reflections on growing up rurally in the wake of the second world war, and her relationships to Aboriginal people and land rights movements. Sometimes I pulled back from the stories to appreciate the poetry. This kind of writing improves my sleep.
Perhaps for you, learning an additional language right now is helpful. I think of a friend who loved learning and speaking Spanish in part because no one had ever been cruel to her in it. I also remember, during a stressful time, walking home from the bus stop at night, and recalling out loud words of Turkish. The novelty of the sounds gave me joy.
Some recent online articles asks if we are ‘languishing’ these days, or perhaps just resting. I like the idea of resting. Languages are out there, waiting for us. In the meantime, I hope we can take pleasure and comfort from the ways that language already shows up in our lives.