By Grace Van Kirk
“Uhhhhhh” is honestly the majority of my internal monologue. “How do you say?” is another common phrase out of my mouth, as is “can I have the, uhm, du weißt das, tú sabes, the, uh, the thing, die heilige Dinge, esa cosa…!” with pointing and gesturing. As a trilingual, I have learned that there exists a stark difference in the ability to speak and understand a language versus being able to put into words the wordless thoughts running through my head at any given moment.
I seem to lose my ability in one language, while retaining communication skills in another. This is especially common when I’m tired, or doing thermodynamic homework. I remember once waking up and speaking only German for about fifteen minutes, much to the annoyance of my mother and my own confusion. I can easily mix up languages and slip into Dengspañol: a monstrous, almost Lovecraftian mashup of German, English, and Spanish.
Yet, beyond momentary failures in communication, I adore these languages. I am fully enamored with linguistics. I am obsessed with the sounds, the rolled r’s, the harsh guttural digraph of “ch”. I learned Spanish through my years in school, German from my cultural heritage and talking with other speakers, and I learned English from living in America in an English-only family. My Irish-Catholic parents also put me into Hebrew school for three years as a toddler, and though I no longer speak the language, I credit this early exposure with my abilities today. To those teachers I say, “!תּוֹדָה Thank you!”
I love all of the cultures, all of the history, all of the sounds. Spanish is fluid and soft. German has more jerk to it, but it feels like home to me. English is the language of my family, Philly accent and all. I’ve always viewed chemistry as a form of linguistics as well, a viewpoint that has served me well throughout the years.
For Spanish, I have taken classes at the University of Salamanca. In Spain, I felt comfortable enough in the inevitability of making mistakes, and I was able to communicate easily and learn faster than some of my classmates. I love writing and reading Spanish. I love the casi smooth flow of the language and flexibility in the prose. A veces madrugo, just so I can listen to the radio stations out of Spain in real time. Ironically, I struggle to put into words the raw, complex beauty in linguistics. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to accurately describe.
I have also taken classes at Humboldt University of Berlin. In Germany, I was lucky enough to speak German well enough to be seen as a native, but poorly enough to be seen as the village idiot by multiple pharmacists. I was too stubborn to switch to English. I now know that I should learn how to say “heartburn” before people think I need an ambulance. Also, in Germany, I was the only American of the group who spoke the language at all. This allowed me to fully enjoy the nuances of the language, such as Sehnsucht, an untranslatable word best described as the feeling of missing someone or something which leaves an emptiness in your soul.
If you live in the country where your mother tongue is spoken, this sentiment is very well-known. From the teary eyes of a customer who hasn’t heard German for years, to watching a child excitedly talking about his day in Spanish, I think there’s something profound in hearing someone and having an immediate connection to that person, an automatic understanding between two strangers. “Ich verstehe dich und ich sehe dich. Te entiendo y te veo. I understand you and I see you.” In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” I can attest to having seen that firsthand. Throughout the years of self-doubt and questioning whether my language skills are “good enough,” there is nothing more validating than seeing someone’s eyes light up upon hearing their mother tongue.
One of my absolute biggest fears is losing lucidity or confidence in any of my languages. My biggest hope is to gather more fluency and add to my list of languages. Right now, I am working on Dutch, Irish, and Swedish, yet I am fickle and easily distracted. Regardless, I hope to one day evolve my Dengspañol into SveDeuNederEngSpañoLige, or into some other mutation of linguistic horror.