Twenty-Six Letters

Attempting to learn a new language has plunged me, without an oxygen mask, into a swirling vortex of newness, and discomfort that I try to avoid in my daily life. I have been attempting, somewhat consistently, for the past few months to become proficient in my fiancé’s native tongue–Tongan. And this language baffles me unlike anything else. My brain gets twisted around itself as I try to master the various words, and try to emulate the sounds that he makes, in my own stumbling less-than-perfect way. Oddly enough, it is not the logistics that I struggle with as much as the raw humbleness that working on this language has begun to forge in my otherwise prideful heart.

Ah, these twenty-six letters of the alphabet. I know them well. Up until the time I began working on this bewildering language, I relied solely on my smug satisfaction in twisting, and wielding these words to my own advantage. I adored words. I thought I loved language. But then I began this journey, and realized that I only loved the language that came naturally to me. The language that I was proficient in. The language that gave me authority as opposed to taking it away.

And that is why I have felt the weariness of learning Tongan so very draining on my own spirit. Because learning a new language means going back to square one, and beginning anew. Tongan lessons have made me the child when I would prefer to be the teacher. I have learned that I am neither better nor worse than other people at learning a language, but–dismally–average.

I remember, as a child, sitting with my Dad or Mom, and working on a reading lesson every day. When I got words right I would get a special sticker. And every day when I pull open my Tongan textbook I think about those stickers, and it gives me hope to pursue my next lesson.

Despite all the discomfort of leaving my native tongue, and attempting to learn another, I am grateful. Because in the midst of all this fear, and mistakes I have learned humility. I have grown in greater respect for those around me who are speaking, daily, in their second language. And the thing that keeps me repeating in rote all of my Tongan vocabulary words? The hope that someday I will be able to converse with my fiancé, and his family in their native tongue, and give them the respect and grace that they afford me in all of our interactions.

Malo e lelei! Fefe hake?

Comments

  1. elly stornebrink says

    What a humbly moving piece you wrote Bethany. I wonder if searching words online would help or are you already doing that? I have no other ideas…good luck! I think your motivation is sweet and pure. 🙂 <3

    • Bethany Miller says

      Searching for words online is an excellent idea, Elly! Thank you! I do have a textbook filled with vocabulary words, but I can really use all the help I can get. Learning a new language is not for the faint of heart. Thanks for the sweet words, and good to have you here!

  2. Alana says

    I do not have much skill with languages. Your difficulties may well be because Tongan is not related to English or any of the romance languages that help to compose English vocabulary (French, Spanish) so you really are learning it from scratch – little or no points of reference. Are you using software such as Rosetta Stone to help in your studies? You may well find the best way to learn it is to visit Tonga and live there for a couple of months – with no choice but to communicate in Tongan.

    • Bethany Miller says

      That is an excellent hypothesis, Alana. Tongan (while it is easier than Greek) is not at all similar to English. Tongan is such an obscure language that there are not many references from which I can learn. I own the online learning software out there, which is a huge textbook, and a bunch of CDs. It certainly helps to be around someone who can speak it fluently, and I ask him a lot of questions. That is a neat idea–to visit Tonga–and I bet it would come a lot faster. Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. Amy says

    Oh, sweetie. Remember the little party hats we would draw on the words, one by one, as you deciphered them? It helped so much. Little celebrations every time you got one right. Maybe that’s what you need to do with the Tongan lessons: celebrate the little triumphs. Wanna go out for ice cream?? 🙂

    • Bethany Miller says

      I LOVED those little party hats. Aah, good times. Good times. I should definitely relearn how to celebrate the little triumphs. I have just grown far too impatient in my old age. 😉 Ice cream sounds good! Let’s do it!

  4. Minette says

    Bethany, a beautiful post on the challenges and struggles we experience when we become beginners again. I appreciated your perspective on only loving the language that gives you authority and doesn’t take it away. A couple of years ago, I sold a business that I had owned for a decade and that had defined me and life. I knew it’s language and knew who I was. Selling that business and having to start over again in a completely different biz, combined with moving across country to a new home and lifestyle, had me feeling out of control and without any authority. I appreciate your perspective! As someone who speaks two language, I can also attest to the joy that comes when the 2nd language finally clicks. Be patient with yourself! Good luck with your goal.
    Minette
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    CEO, MinetteRiordan.com

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