Learning how to talk is a gift our parents give us. Learning how to do it a second time is a gift we give ourselves.
In my experience, (and I’ve done it twice), learning a new language takes a combination of desire, effort, and willingness to sound like a complete idiot for long stretches of time. I learned French when I was twenty and twenty years later, Japanese. Talking slowly and badly with the word count of a small child for interminable months I realized one day I might as well be drunk. From that day onward the process became less painful. This is not to say that alcohol makes anything easier except getting into trouble but if you’re serious about learning another language, you are heading for a truckload. Of trouble, that is. Not necessarily booze. Personally, I have found that the hardest part of drinking is getting up in the morning without a deep sense of shame. But if I can wake up with a few new phrases in the moleskin this shame is greatly lessened and if I can wake up alone, all the more reason to shine. Suffice to say I’ve been a drunk in the past and quite the slut but my bar Japanese is perfect.
When you learn to speak a language you learn its culture as well as its words and sounds.
There is no way to speak Japanese for instance without being exceedingly polite. No way to speak French without evoking gender with every noun. This is why both French and Japanese women are inordinately attractive. One effortlessly implies sex with every sentence and the other perfectly ignores it.
As a person who grew up in a country where food is a nuisance, death is ignored, and it’s a crime sometimes to have a penis or a vagina I appreciate the strong sense of societal roles that older cultures offer but it’s not for everyone and it’s difficult to learn to talk again half way through the ride.
I speak mostly American English but one time I dreamt in Italian. Fluent, perfect Italian. I don’t know how that works because in waking life I don’t know ten words of that language but I will say this: Best limoncello I ever had and best, most insane scooter ride through Rome. And mama-mia, que pizza! Some people dream of sex — conglomerations of their feelings about themselves and people with whom they have lived and worked. I dream of Italian pizza — conglomerations of crust, aged cheese and fresh tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with fleurs de sel and crackling like a burnt offering from a god who got it perfect from the get-go, childhood brain cancer excepted.
But back to words. Why is a boat a She in English and a He in French? And why is it specifically neither in German? Aren’t we all in this together? Who makes these decisions and where can an Irish/Russian mutt born in California address an angry letter? Putting it on the internet for like-minded souls is nice but let’s face it, changes nothing; I need to speak to a manager, godamit, put me through to the Board and fire the CEO. I’ve lived in Paris for the past few years and have frankly had enough of “une” baguette. This is a long, hard, (and if you’re timing is right, still-warm) Phallus of Fulfilment— there is nothing remotely feminine about Parisian bread. If your French is good enough, you can even request how hard you want it (and people often do). You grip it with your hand, you poke people with it inadvertently when getting off the bus, you will take it home and later you will trounce it into sauce. It’s cheap, it’s everywhere, and it will not last the night. No, sorry, the baguette is 100% male and as a man living in the West in the year 2017 being forced to use a feminine article; I am offended. There should be a trigger warning outside Parisian boulangeries for anyone who pretends to care about the power of words and yeast and the glory of a fresh baguette: Ici n’est pas un safe-space.
German is similar to French in assigning gender to inanimate objects but goes even further with the concept of neuter. Neuter? If you endow some words with gender and others without, aren’t they ostensibly castrate? No. As an English speaker and a child of Puritan Pragmatism it is impossible not to recognize this as madness. German people in general are excellent at almost everything but when I hear them speak I am reminded of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms who all had to grow up with those words in their ears and mouths and frankly, I understand. Music was their escape.
But if you really wanna throw a wrench into the language gears there is no place on earth like Japan. In Japanese, there are no articles at all. Is the subject in question singular or plural? No way at all to tell. No word at all to brace for the coming noun. The proper way to order a cup of coffee for example in a traditional, Tokyo kissaten is “coffee one bring it please.” The way to say I love you to your spouse or your mother, (the person who carried you and fed you and passed you through her very own loins) is “love, it’s being made.” Is it any wonder why it’s so rarely said? Japanese, for the uninitiated, is Tarzan. What is wrong with these people? A clear lack of Anglo-Saxon minutia is what and for that, again, I am sorry. Put the verb at the end of the sentence if you have to but throw a blue-eyed a bone. I learned passable French in ten months in Paris but I lived in Tokyo for three years before I could stop pointing and smiling like a chimp. Maybe because everything smelled so good and was so perfectly delicious. But probably because Japanese menus are nearly impossible to sus. Pagoda pagoda pagoda, wait, I know this one, na-ma bee-roo ku-da-sai. Fresh beer bring it please.
All god’s creatures live so that others may live in turn. As human beings, words ameliorate the process.
“Tiger!” I am convinced this was the first, human word.
But words are just the beginning, the means to poetry’s end.
Somewhere in between is culture. And then there’s Twitter, a sort of human elephant chain only instead of trunk/tail it’s hand/groin but don’t get me started on that.
We are all in this together and we are all we got. Under the midnight vault of twinkling proof of the miracle and insignificance of our individuality we have only each other to make sense of it and to do so we must open our mouths.
My favorite word in any language is “itadakimasu.” It is a word you say in Japan before you eat and it has zero political connotations or implication of god or giving thanks or wishing health on one’s self or anyone else. It simply means, ‘I will receive.”
The word is not important.
The important thing is that it is said.