This is how it feels to be a speaker of another language.
At first, you feel a little flabbergasted: “OMG! I’m actually in [insert country]! And they really do speak [insert language] here! Pretty much exclusively! It sounds so [exotic/romantic/guttural/alarming/melodic/robotic] ! I can’t believe I’m really here! Let’s play charades!”
Gradually, wonder gives way to mild curiosity. How do you say [insert unknown word]? You learn to say “hello” and “thank-you,” and the world begins to open up to you. You are a participant. And people think you’re cute. Like a pet. You can now do tricks.
But eventually, your tricks become old, and inconsequential. You can’t ask for directions with “hello” and “thank-you.” Your questions remain unasked, and therefore, unanswered. You are entirely reliant on the goodwill of benevolent translators, if you manage to find them. And then you try not to manifest yourself as the pathetic, clingy personage that you know you have become.
You feel tense. Stressed out. Apprehensive. Uneasy. It is unsettling to not know what is going on. You feel like you have no control over your environment. Decisions are made without you. Actions are undertaken without explanation, and you pour all your energy into trying to divine their purpose – only to find, more often than not, that there is no comprehensible purpose at all. Humans just act that way.
On top of all that, you feel illiterate, especially if the script you see around you is drastically different from your own. You know those signs say something important, but you can’t make it out. They tell you how to do something, or where to go, or what is forbidden. But any proficiency you once had with associating symbols and sounds is now eradicated. You are no longer a highly educated individual. You have devolved to preschool status.
Yes, preschool. Or perhaps infancy. You are reduced to making unintelligible sounds and gestures in order to acquire your basic needs. Perhaps some onlookers find this endearing. Others see you as a novelty; still others perceive you as a target. But most just find you a nuisance or a nonentity, and choose to overlook you.
This is when you begin to feel invisible. People talk around you and through you; you are simply not there. Unlike anonymity, this is not a chosen invisibility. You are unseen, whether you wish to be or not.
Sometimes, this spirit-like existence feels a little surreal. You drift outside of yourself, and you observe the speakers as if they are part of some absurd social experiment. Do they really understand what they are saying? They must, because they respond to one another with what appears to be recognition. Really, it’s a wonder that any language “works” at all. What on earth are they communicating about, I wonder? Is it something that would interest me, if I knew?
Which brings me to one of the lesser-known by-products of other-lingualism: boredom. It’s stressful and brain-consuming to try to untangle the intricacies of human interaction for any length of time, and eventually, your circuits overheat. You shut down. You tune out. And then the boredom begins. Because, you see, propriety requires that you continue to look like you’re listening, even when you aren’t. You cannot amuse yourself with other more engaging activities, or have an interesting conversation with some other human being who understands you. You are forced to retreat entirely into your own thoughts — which tend to be dominated by your feelings of invisibility, illiteracy, and unease. This is a dangerous descent.
If you are lucky enough to be studying the language that surrounds you, you have a slight advantage. You can assert your presence and perhaps generate a response from someone else. You can figure out what the signs are about, even if you can’t pin down their meaning. The language loses some of its mystique, and you find that if you listen hard enough, you can crack bits of its code. This can lead to moments of elation, but they are always tempered by the awareness of the vast expanse of the language that remains locked to you. Triumph and disillusionment walk hand-in-hand; there is always still so much to learn.
So even with the pleasant ripples of intellectual stimulation that come from mastering bits and pieces of the language, it still comes down to an overwhelming linguistic fatigue, followed by the inevitable gnawing boredom. Couple that with a naturally introverted demeanour, and a mild social anxiety that manifests itself even within your own language group, and you get a little slice of misery.
Remember this when the other-language-speakers among you come out of hiding. They are starving for the same human interactions that they observe around them everywhere they go; and they are trying; but they are tired. They are so tired. An unlearned language weighs more than you realize.
We who speak other languages have one suspicion, and that one suspicion gives us a speck of hope. We are people, and the speakers around us are people, and people of any linguistic shade are inclined to form relationships. We suspect that relationships may be possible, despite the barriers between us, and we yearn for them. We yearn to share our dormant sense of humour and our long-buried stories. We have stories, you know — each one of us. We have a past, with cataclysms and victories and mundanities that shaped us into the interesting people we are, behind our silence. We think that perhaps you have stories, too, and that some of them may run parallel to ours; that we could meet somewhere, in these stories, if we just knew how to get around the cultural divide. We want to know you. We want you to know us. But we are vulnerable, and we are tired, much too tired for words.