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Learning a Second Language, or, Why I Don’t Understand Mexico

By Robert Blakslee, writer

Right now, I am living in Mexico and attempting to master Spanish, neither of which efforts is going particularly well. And so I have set myself the task of discovering the root of my difficulties and sorting out the problem.

When I say that living in Mexico is proving difficult, what I mean is that there is something, or I feel that there is something that I just don’t get about the general way that things are done here. I feel that I’m always a step behind, missing a beat. I feel that I don’t have a grasp on life in Mexico, or that I don’t have the tools to map onto the reality of the place. And I think that my difficulties in achieving fluency in Spanish are related to these feelings of being culturally adrift. I think that the two go hand in hand and are joint causes the one of the other. Maybe a better way to put it would be to say that for all practical purposes, I think that they are the same problem.

Writer and memoirist Annie Dillard wrote, “When I was young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English.” Until recently, I have realized, I imagined rather the same thing. I understood, of course, that translation was a messy business, that we couldn’t just exchange word for word, sentence for sentence. But I suppose I thought that at bottom, languages were sort of like different drop-cloths that could be draped over the same kinds of objects, and that in the final analysis, no matter what language one used, one could elucidate the same underlying shapes, the same permanent thoughts. I have come to understand that this is not at all the case, and, with Annie Dillard, “I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again” (Dillard, 105-6).

My problem is not, I have realized, that I have raw ideas and desires, thoughts and emotions boiling up inside of me that I cannot find the vocabulary for in Spanish. My problem is that I have English ideas and desires, and English thoughts and emotions, which I would then like to translate into Spanish in order to communicate them to the people around me. I have not managed to “learn speech all over again,” as I now know that I will have to. What I do is understand the world first in English, and then try to explain that understanding in entirely different terms. It’s like I have built a house out of Legos, but have to describe it to someone as though I had built it out of K’nex.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a very clever story called “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” about a 20th-Century Frenchman who has written, entirely independently, a certain section of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Although the two novels are word for word identical, Borges comes to the conclusion that Menard’s is richer and more complex because it has been written from an entirely different perspective, a perspective more alien to its subject matter than Cervantes’s. We might wish to disagree with Borges, to invoke the ‘death of the author’, to say that the two versions of Quixote say the same thing in the same language and that a person reading either version today will reap the same rewards no matter which they choose. However, I think that it is much more interesting to agree with Borges and try to understand how the books might be identical yet distinct. I think the key to the answer is that Borges understands language to be fundamentally communicative. In reading, we are trying to understand what someone is trying to tell us. And if the books appear identical, yet must be understood differently, then we must conclude that the books must not really be identical. We must understand that despite using the same words, Menard and Cervantes were writing in different languages, that Menard couldn’t have understood his Quijote in the same way as Cervantes.

As Borges shows us, the difference is in perspective, which must be understood as a difference in world-view rather than simply a difference in point-of-view. World-view, I want to say, is the way that we understand the world, that is, the way in which we understand everything. I want to argue that world-view is reflected in as well as generated by language use. The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars puts it this way: “it is the linguistic community as a self-perpetuating whole which is the minimum unit in terms of which conceptual activity can be understood” (Sellars, 512). Language, evolving though it might be, is passed on from generation to generation. We are raised into a linguistic community, which means that we share the same language, of course, but also that enfolded within that language is a certain form a life, a certain common way of looking at things that allows for us to understand one another. Meaning, then, is not to be understood as some ideal object or Platonic form underlying and giving shape to our words. As Wittgenstein would tell us again and again, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Wittgenstein, 25). The context of our lives is the context of the language that we learn, which means that meaning, as a practical entity, is largely a matter of custom and habit. And the customs and habits of one life, or of one community, are often radically different from those of another. Take, for example, the respective lives of Borges’s Menard and Miguel de Cervantes.

The model of human thought that Sellars and, to some extent, Wittgenstein expound takes language to be our conceptual framework, the complex network of ideas that facilitates our understanding of the world and orients our world-view. Sellars writes, “the members of a linguistic community are first language learners and only potentially ‘people,’ but subsequently language teachers, possessed of the rich conceptual framework this implies” (Sellars, 512). The idea, then, is that we are not born with a way to filter our experience. The usual reference here is to William James, who described an infant’s experience of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Sellars’s and Wittgenstein’s idea is that the process of learning a language is at one and the same time the process of acquiring concepts. Only once we have learned a language/acquired these concepts, are we ‘people’, in the sense of positive, rational agents. That is positive, rational agents according to the rules and criteria of the linguistic community in which we live, and into which we were raised.

And so to move from one linguistic community to another is not, and cannot, be a matter of merely finding a new way to say the same things. It must be “learning speech all over again,” with all that that implies. It must be a matter of trying to drop what we think we already know, and trying to look at the world, re-learn the world, from the logic of a different world-view. As far as learning Spanish goes, this is a very difficult thing for me to do, given how firmly planted, how comfortable, how me I am, in the language that I already have. And so I have good days and bad days. Some days I wake up determined to live my life in Spanish. I’ll be puttering along, chatting with people in Spanish, thinking to myself in Spanish, proud of myself, when all of a sudden I’ll realize that I am very boring in Spanish. Or that I’ve lapsed into English again. Or that I’ve said something very ordinary in a very silly way and feel embarrassed. I’m like a child in Spanish. As Sellars might say, I’m not quite a ‘person’ yet. People have to speak slowly to me, correct me, redirect me. The best moments I have are when I’m able to redirect myself; when I recognize a phrase in its proper place and feel that I’ve finally managed to fit the round peg into the round hole. I know that I’ve mapped onto however small a portion of this new life-pattern, and feel richer for being able to recognize that.

Works Cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.” Ficciones. New York: Vintage Español, 1995.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.

Sellars, Wilfrid. “Language as Thought and as Communication.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 29.4 (Jun 1969): 506-527.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

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8 comments on “Learning a Second Language, or, Why I Don’t Understand Mexico

  1. Shijung Kim
    November 15, 2013

    Thank you Robert for this heartfelt, smooth, and thoughtful essay. One of my favorite parts is: “But I suppose I thought that at bottom, languages were sort of like different drop-cloths that could be draped over the same kinds of objects…” It’s really nice to think of writing a novel as a certain usage of language, which strangely doesn’t cross my mind often. Thanks again, and I hope to read more from you!

  2. keith dearden
    November 16, 2013

    thoughtful and well written. I don’t detect frustration, rather determination to find the answer for acclamationn.i liked your reference to world view over point of view.in all quiet on the western front the attempt was to explain trench warfare from that of german soldier. but the attempt was made using American language. it helps me understand on my terms, not theirs.one idle thought for you Robbie. when you dream , it is still English, yes ?any Spanish involved ? nice work pal.

  3. Mika
    January 13, 2014

    Robert – I just read this article (http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/1/mining-the-languages-of-empire-in-the-early-americas) and thought it might interest you, since it puts some of your thoughts into a historical context… Hope you like it!

  4. Francis.R.
    April 16, 2014

    I knew foreign people that learnt to speak focusing their mind in live the culture more than to speak it (parties, going to the beach, to seduce a girl, make a friend, food in public places, the market). So if you understand the way of life it’s easier to bond the words to represent them. My Spanish is very formal because it’s a foreign language to me too, buy curiously I think I speak it better than the most of native speakers 😛

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  6. Sara Aguirre
    July 3, 2014

    What a beautiful post. I think learning a new language can be very hard. Even though that was never my problem–but I know it can be hard for someone else. When I learned my third language my teachers would say: ‘You are not learning a new language, but a new way of thinking”. And you are right too, lenguage is culture, history, but essentially life. The way people decide what words to use, has a strong root in their life and identity. Therefore the way a whole compound of people speak is very different from others. I always found it amazing that in school, I was always taught the difference of ‘lenguage’, ‘lexico’ and ‘lengua’. It just amplified how beautiful–or cool– Spanish was to me, irregardless of the fact, that Spanish is my first language. It’s often hard to find yourself in another language. With English, I’m more outgoing; with Spanish I’m more romantic(how can you not love Borges, Benedetti & Cortazar?), and with French, I’m more of a philosopher. And it’s OK to have these language identities, I like it!! Once you learn a new language you are extending yourself, you are creating like a new being from you. We were all toddlers once, and kids too, with more time you will be an adult in Spanish. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
    Fun fact: Spanish is great! In it we have ‘I miss you’ & ‘Tu me manques’. ‘I miss you’ cannot be said in French, just as ‘tu me manques’ I haven’t heard it in English. Respectively they are: ‘Te extraño’ and ‘me haces falta’ in spanish and they mean two very different things! I’ve always wondered why is that? Same goes with: Te quiero. Ah! ‘Te quiero’, now that, that is something you cannot translate!! How amazing is that?! A feeling that can only be felt in another language!!

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  8. Palma
    September 23, 2015

    This is a great tip espscially to those frresh to the blogosphere.
    Short but vdry precise information… Manyy thanks for shwring this one.

    A must read post!

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