“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Before UWC, the only language I had studied (other than English) was Spanish. This was not really by choice – my school district didn’t offer anything before that. So when I started high school, I was so excited that I finally got to learn something other than English. And I found that I really enjoyed learning a new language, even if my spoken abilities left some to be desired.

Then I came to UWC, and found out that they weren’t offering the level I wanted to take (Spanish B) for first years. There was only two classes: one for native/perfectly fluent speakers (Spanish A) and one for beginners (Spanish ab initio). So, rather than restart at the beginning after three years of learning, I decided to push myself and take French ab initio instead. This has proved to be a both easier and more challenging than I was expecting. On one hand, it was a bit easier because I quickly realized that French is basically a combination of basic Spanish and advanced English, only with trickier pronunciations rules and lots of exceptions.

On the other hand, it has been hard for my brain to keep everything in order, because not only have I been learning French in school, but I’ve also been trying to learn some local (Trenutno ja znam nešto malo). This means that there are four languages bouncing around in my head – English, Spanish, French, and Bosnian. The latter three are all at a jumbled advanced beginner level, where I comprehend a lot more than I can speak. As for English, I wish I could say that it was the one that has remained strong and steady through all this, but that’s not the case.

There’s a theory at UWC that throughout the school year, everyone’s capabilities in their own native language decrease; this even applies to us English natives. When I first arrived, I remember consciously having to adjust to hearing English spoken in so many different accents. But even as the year progresses and people’s accents wear off, vocabulary does not necessarily improve. Now, I sometimes find myself struggling to find the words I want to say in English, and my own vocabulary range has decreased, mostly because I started using fewer complicated words to avoid confusing others. The other problem has been “learning” something I’ll refer to as speaking “international,” which is technically not too different from American English.

Understanding “international” basically means stepping out of the American bubble, as it encompasses both linguistic and cultural differences primarily between the US and Europe as a whole. Here are some of the differences that I’ve adjusted to, some more obvious than others:

  • university‘ (instead of college)
  • rubber‘ / ‘gum‘ (instead of eraser)
  • canteen‘ (instead of cafeteria)
  • football‘ (instead of soccer – also, referring to that other sport as “American football,” as if it ever came up in conversation with Europeans)
  • counting floors in a building – what Americans refer to as the “first floor” is called the “ground floor” in Europe. This means that when I say I live on the second floor in the Musala residence, I mean that I climb two flights of stairs to get there, which is what Americans would call the “third floor.”
  • metric system – including Celsius for weather, kilograms for weight, centimeters for height, and kilometers for distances
  • different paper sizes – something that has been surprisingly annoying when trying to print out random things such as applications, for example
  • different methods of writing dates & time – something that there is not much consistency on across many countries, frustratingly enough. Is it 5:30PM or 17:30? or 17:30h? or 17.00? Ugh. I have adjusted to writing the date on my papers as dd/mm/yyyy though. Fun fact: in local language, putting a period after a number makes it ordinal, aka “3.” means “third.” They write the year this way, so today would be written 23.03.2014.; writing the year this way literally translates to this being the “2014th” year.
  • speaking of numbers, did you know that Americans write numbers differently than Europeans? That is a broad generalization of course, as there are almost as many styles of handwriting as there are people, but at least I was taught to write in a certain way. The most significant differences are the 1 and the 9, which I mistook for a “7” and a “g” respectively during my first few math classes.

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As you might imagine, all of this has resulted in a bit of language chaos in my head. Forgetting Spanish while retaining just enough to get confused in French, trying to learn Bosnian on the side while being surrounded by it constantly, and using two versions of English – “international” and “American native” (which has more slang, expressions, and complicated vocabulary). Plus, all this chaos has erupted in the past year and a half – it’s happening after 15 years of absolutely zero language learning, and 3 years of attempting to learn only one in school.

Still, I enjoy it in some way. There’s a quote that says, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” Particularly as an American, it’s so easy to not learn any other language than English, because there is no pressing need to do so. The closest places to Minnesota that don’t speak English would be French Canada or Mexico, neither of which are particularly near. We are a nation of immigrants, so English has somehow become the equalizer, the common ground that unifies even as immigrants retain their native languages and cultures. For these reasons, among others, we try to justify only knowing English. But this is confining; we are limiting ourselves to just one perspective, to just one level to communicate at, and to just one group of people with which we can communicate.

This is a rather tragic thought, isn’t it? We isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, not even necessarily intentionally, just because there isn’t another language on our door step and we’re fortunate enough to speak the language of globalization. I don’t want to live that way. I want to experience as much as I can around the whole world, and that involves attempting to connect through language. Even if I don’t become fluently multilingual, I certainly wouldn’t return to where I was before – knowing English very well but not much else. There is something beautiful about the wild patchwork of languages in my head.

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One thought on ““The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

  1. Fred Naaktgeboren March 25, 2014 / 4:06 pm

    Dear Erika:
    Very impressive post, your language may have shrunken, but your ability to put into perspective your
    experiences certainly has grown exponentially. We remain so pleased how you have embraced your time in BiH. Just like your Mom and Sara, who did some pretty amazing things thru high school that
    opened doors for what they are today, you have opened doors for the future by being willing to step
    out and carve out an exciting path. We are proud to call you part of us. Love, Papa and Nana.

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