Ever since I backpacked around Asia 15 years ago, I have wished that English wasn’t my first language. In the Tower of Babel that is a Bangkok dormitory, I was almost ashamed to be monolingual as I watched Asian, European and Middle Eastern travellers slip between two, three or more languages.
There have been opportunities – I’ve studied a little bit of French and Spanish, had a crack at learning Chinese in the six months I was there – but linguists will tell you that until you are really engaged with learning a language, you’re not going to get very far.
Before we even arrived in Vanuatu, I had made up my mind that I was going to throw myself into learning Bislama, one of the three national languages, and the one that connects all NiVanuatu (the other two languages are French and English).
As far as languages go, Bislama is relatively easy to learn – it’s an English-based pidgin or creole language with plenty of common vocabulary. It doesn’t take too much effort for a foreigner to pick up the basic phrases, and you can make yourself understood quite easily to most locals, who will have been to an English-speaking school so can work out what you’re trying to say.
While the words are easy, the grammar of Bislama is not so much and, because of the work I’m doing, I really want to speak and write true Bislama, using local grammar rather than the English structure I tend to use unconsciously. This makes it more challenging but lots of fun for a word nerd. (I should point out at this point that I’m nowhere near fluent; I start Intermediate level classes this week.)
I’m very lucky to be working with educators who are patient and helpful as I fumble along but even still, learning a new language can be an incredibly humbling and, at times, lonely business.
If you’ve met me, you know I’m talkative – tending toward verbal diarrhoea – so not knowing how to make chitchat is difficult for me. Even when I can follow a fast-moving gossip session, I can rarely find the words to contribute to the conversation before it has moved on. Without words to express myself, I often feel I’m not really being the true me but a (very quiet) 2D cardboard cutout of myself. This has made it slow (but not impossible) to form meaningful connections with my workmates, something I’ve not experienced before.
Stepping outside of my native language has also made me examine some of the ways I typically communicate and the reasons I do so. For example, being the world biggest crowd pleaser, I detest misunderstandings and would choose to nod and smile rather that making someone feel awkward because I didn’t catch their meaning in English. But in my conversations in Bislama, I am forcing myself to stop and ask questions (there’s still lots of nodding and smiling) so I can learn both culture and language. This often makes me feel uncomfortable, annoying, stupid and awkward, but I remember what Brene Brown said about vulnerability, and that growth of any kind is innately uncomfortable.
Luckily, there are 50 zillion studies that say that learning a second language will make you smarter, less likely to get Alzheimer’s, earn more money and loads of other benefits which you can find here. For me, the best part is opening doors to new friendships and cultures and being able to chat about black magic with a bus driver on your way to work.