Languages are such cunning crafts of culture. They weave into your life and become invisible, discreet. They fuse into your life in ways that you can’t really understand until you leave them and take rest on a foreign shore. One can never really know how much one takes for granted until the sounds and symbols of an unfamiliar place robs one of one’s senses, rendering one dumb and flailing with the simplest tasks.
Even in a world so globalized, so catered and adapted to foreign tourists, with access to translation tools and language learning apps so easy and undemanding, it can be difficult finding your own languages ranked subordinate to others, if not completely outside the realm of concern. When information no longer comes instinctively at a single glance, we begin to realize our own ignorance. We are forced to pay more attention, slow down, and confront the fact that we are all stupid under the right circumstances.
For me, this was the first time entering a country where I had almost zero experience with its language. My ears were not accustomed to its Slavic cadence, my tongue struggled to wrap itself around the consonants that were packed so closely together, and my eyes could not find familiar roots in the words to hint at any semblance of meaning. As someone who loves learning new languages and has dedicated a good amount time to understanding the ones I encounter, this was equal parts exciting and terrifying. I wanted so badly to know the structure of the language, learn the alphabet and its spelling rules, go beyond the simple repetition of common phrases and understand their construction. Rather than memorizing basic vocabulary, I wanted to soak in the language until I could differentiate its separate components and tones and implications, until the intent behind the words floated to the surface even if the details had to fall a little bit behind. But I could not find a foothold to lodge my first step. It was all too abstruse for a Mandarin/English speaker like me, though those two languages had aided me greatly in my language-learning so far.
It was dreadful and intimidating, but it was what I had chosen, what I need to make myself encounter before I could grow.
Fortunately or unfortunately, most people here speak English. It perhaps makes things a little too comfortable for me, although it gives me more time to focus on the particularities of the culture itself, on the food here, the way things function and the way people interact. But there’s still plenty of moments when you can hear the awkwardness in the local’s English, where you know the language has prevented their true meaning from coming through, or when it negates their desire to communicate. It becomes daunting to talk to people when you cannot decipher if their frustration is directed at themselves, the language or you. Your heightened awareness of non-linguistic cues also leave you paranoid that you’ve done or said something wrong. It is the space between the words and their intent where we reside, clear on neither and struggling to connect them.
But speaking English with the locals doesn’t eliminate one’s encounters with the Czech language. Navigating this city involves reading signs, learning names of places and streets and directions that all sound the same at first. To the untrained ear, words blend together into a jumble of sounds and our brains cannot figure out which syllables to grasp. Then, before we know it, the words have dissipated into the air and we haven’t heard a single thing.
The first time I got directions from a local in Prague was when I was trying to buy a local SIM card, and the shop assistant told me I needed to unlock my phone at this place somewhere down the street. Even after I went back to him a second time and he drew me this map, I still did not fully understand what he had said, even though he’d been speaking in English. Perhaps it was the street names and his accent that threw me off. The English blended into the Czech and became indistinguishable. Fortunately, I did not need to go to that place at the end. If I did, I’m sure I would have gotten lost.