Getting Good at a Language is a Double Edged Sword
When I write blog posts, I write them in the moment. Usually, I have some thought that I realize would make a great start for a post, or I have some experience I really want to record. I often think of this blog as my journal or my diary, it is the way I record what is going on in my life, and I am just sharing it with everyone else in the whole wide world. The point of saying this is to remind both myself and you, my readers, that each of my blog posts exists as a snapshot of a moment. Usually, I write my posts straight into my blog. Less often, I write them as word documents and just cut and copy later. With the exception of my posts in foreign languages, I almost never edit a post before it goes up, just like I wouldn’t edit an entry in a diary.
Like everyone else, my life is a roller coasters of ups and downs. I’ve had a lot of ups this year, but as the end of my time in Prague approaches, there are a lot of downs too. I’m trying to be honest as I record what I’m feeling, even when my feelings from one day to the next are opposite. With that said, I want to share two posts I wrote in word documents in the last few days. They are, interestingly, basically contradictory. The one is full of excitement about my growing language skills, while the other expresses frustration with those same skills.
Me and Czech TV
I’ve been traveling a lot these past few weeks (Paris, Cinque Terre, and Malta all in one month) and it has been seriously great. But the result of traveling a lot is that I’ve had very little down time. Especially since we’ve been in the midst of finals, all my extra time has been spent frantically writing papers and studying for those tests.
But this weekend, I’m not going anywhere. Technically I am, but I’m just accompanying my family to grandma’s house. Which means I’ve had the time to just hang out with my family.
I’ve been cuddling with Emma and got kisses from Jachym when he got home from school today. All this kid time means I’ve also gotten to watch some cartoons. Morning cartoons, afternoon cartoons, evening cartoons. There isn’t anything fundamentally interesting about watching cartoons if you are no longer a child. Watching cartoons has actually been a bit like torture over this year, because I am stuck watching cartoons that I don’t even understand. So I stopped watching them sometime around February. I would still sometimes watch other TV shows, like Castle, in Czech because I knew the plots well enough to use them as a sort of lesson in Czech.
But then, this week, I watched some cartoons. I watched some with Emma this morning, and then some with Jachym this afternoon. And I realized at some point that I wasn’t just absentmindedly staring at the TV screen waiting for the program to be over so we could do something else, like I had been earlier in the year. This time, I was actually watching them. And understanding them. Not translating them for myself, but actually understanding them. In Czech!
Now I realize that these are TV programs for children, and so they fundamentally have easier vocabulary and lots of visual clues. But I also know that these are programs in a foreign language. And these are programs that just a few months ago I found incredibly frustrating because even if I devoted 100% attention to them, I wasn’t able to understand even half of what was going on. But now, I can sit on the couch and watch the cartoons like any other kid. I don’t understand all the words, but I catch enough to figure the rest out. I use the images as context for the sentences I don’t understand. I don’t try to translate, but let myself learn through osmosis.
Obviously, this moment of realization was exciting and, honestly, a little overwhelming and disappointing. I’m about to leave, and I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on this language. I can read stories to the kids and feel like I’m actually reading them. When something seems strange, it might be because I don’t understand the words. Or it might be that the story is actually about a biting sweater and another sweater made of spaghetti. (Kids stories can be a little … strange.)
As I finish my time here in Prague, I’ve been continuing with the habit I’ve picked up here in this city filled with coffee shops. I’ve joked multiple times that there is a café on every corner, and more than once I’ve made it my goal to find a new favorite. Needless to say, I have many.
But I’m not the type of person to just go sit aimlessly in a café sipping a cappuccino. I go with friends, and we chat for hours. Or I bring my computer or my iPad or a book and I write the papers I need to write or I read.
I’ve fallen in love with the café culture here more than I ever fell in love with cafés in Boston or San Francisco, not because there are necessarily more cafés here, or a greater variety, but for some other reason I couldn’t put my finger on.
I finally figured it out.
I hate working with headphones in. Not that I can’t do it or that I find headphones uncomfortable, but just that I enjoy hearing what is going on around me. I like to hear the clink of plates or the low voices of people around me. But in the States, where all those conversations are in English, I overhear something I find interesting, and all of a sudden I am no longer focusing on what I am reading, but rather that I’m thinking about the conversation I am listening to. But here, in the Czech Republic, where everyone is speaking a foreign language, that hasn’t been a problem. Every so often there is a table speaking English, and I hear that and find the language notable, but very rarely is the conversation notable as well. So I ignore it as easily as I ignored the conversations my brother and dad would have while I was in high school.
Today, I’m sitting in a café, like always. Like always, the conversations around me are in Czech. But this time, I understand most of what is happening and I can’t focus anymore. I am listening to these conversations around me, understanding enough to want to understand it all. And it is distracting.
I finally figured it out.
I love having background noise, and as long as I couldn’t understand them, dozens of conversations could happen around me and I wouldn’t be bothered.
It feels like I have been doing my homework in the eye of a hurricane all year long. But now, the eye has moved, and the wind is blowing my papers away and I am getting wet. And it is distracting.
Perhaps this is why I never fell in love with doing work in cafés in Boston. I’ve gotten lots of distraction-free work done in Diesel, where you have to pay for internet. But that was in spite of the atmosphere, not because of it. I would go to Diesel with headphones and playlists because otherwise I’d happily sit in a corner and eavesdrop. And here, with just two papers left to write in Prague, the same thing is happening to me in Czech.
So I guess getting good at this language is a double edged sword. I was hoping to bring my love of cafés as work spaces back to Boston, but now I suspect that won’t be happening. At the same time, learning that I need my headphones in cafés here too is a little exciting, because it means that my latent language skills are growing exponentially! Just in time to go home…
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got a good answer or come to any sort of conclusion regarding how I feel about these discoveries. But you can be sure that there will be lots more posts about leaving coming up. Consider this a warning – my blog is about to get sentimental.