Ignorance actually is bliss – at least when it comes to my language inabilities. We lived in Slovakia nearly 18 months. In that time, I mastered a few basics: ordering a glass of wine; wishing a friend “good day”; asking for the check. The communication value was limited, but people seemed to appreciate my efforts. Honestly, I never made an attempt to learn Slovak. I realized this wouldn’t be a permanent move. Slovak is only spoken by – well – Slovaks. My American brain is struggling enough to learn French. Or at least this is how I have rationalized it.
In those early days, not speaking the language was stressful. The most mundane tasks became obstacles: trying to buy furniture and arranging delivery; being lost and needing directions; completing a simple transaction like buying an annual tram pass. I would have paid dearly to install a language switch in my brain which could click over to Slovak. But as the months passed, and my ability to communicate using tremendously simplified language improved, I learned to achieve my most basic of needs through simple nouns and gestures. I became, linguistically, a fully functioning two-year old.
Then, after nearly a year in Slovakia, I returned to the United States for a brief visit. I was besieged by English I could no longer read on the tram, focus completely on what my husband said at dinner or shop blissfully unaware of what the woman in the grocery store was “blah blah blahing” into her cell phone. And it dawned on me. I love not knowing the local language. I realized how intrusive random conversations are in my everyday life.
Now, we are living in Hungary. It’s another move which will most likely not be permanent. I have managed to switch my dakujams to koszonoms. We have stopped tugging on the store door when the sign very clearly says it is “zarva”. I’m about as fluent as I’m going to get. I went to lunch with a Hungarian friend yesterday. He was poised to order my lunch for me. But I waved him off: “Gomba, Salad, Yogurt”. (English translation, “I’ll have a side of mushrooms, please, and a salad with yogurt dressing.”). He was impressed when the non-English speaking woman handed me exactly what I ordered. It is a skill in itself – learning to simplify your English to the very minimum number of words needed to complete the transaction.
Confusion is the white noise of my life. The banal and silly conversations, so freely shared in the public domain, are lost on me. Today, my husband and I spent an hour translating our phone instructions on the internet. We finally gave up, and I left for work. My 45 minute train ride was just long enough to write a first pass of this blog. Hungarian swirled around me as I typed undistracted. On those rare days when a group of people sit down and converse in English, I sigh and shut my eyes. It happens so infrequently it’s a nice diversion and creates some dinner conversation fodder. I would still pay dearly for the language switch in my brain. I just realize, more times than not, I’d keep it switched off.