This last Friday, as I sat at my desk with smoke coming out of my ears from all the mental circuits that had recently been fried attempting to learn the Iski language, I thought up an analogy of my situation. It’s not a perfect depiction, by any means, but to my heat-exhausted psyche at the time, it seemed fairly apt. It went something like this:
Imagine that you have been thrown into an arena. The arena is filled with mud – wet, sticky, slimy mud. We will call this mud “foreign culture.” Foreign culture is designed to make you look stupid, no matter what you’re doing. You may have 16 years of formal education under your belt, but most of the people in the foreign culture you’re living in will probably think you are the biggest goober they’ve ever seen, and will genuinely wonder how you ever learned to dress yourself.
Continuing on with the allegory, imagine that someone has released a greased, wild pig into the arena. It is your job to catch this pig and subdue it. The pig’s name is “Language.” Language is elusive, erratic, temperamental, and is going to do everything he possibly can to evade you. Language thrives in mud (foreign culture). Where you plod and struggle, he wallows and romps and plays, never feeling happier than when he is completely covered in the stuff.
There are also two hulking men in the arena with you, with wooden baseball bats. Their names are “Grammar” and “Vocabulary.” These men are on the side of Language, and have made it their life’s ambition to beat you completely senseless any time you come near their piggy friend.
You slog it out, chasing after this sinister swine, slipping, sliding, splashing, and making a general fool of yourself, until finally, after a practiced and perfectly timed lunge, you manage to grab hold of one of his chubby little legs. “Aha!” you shout in triumph, as you hold the squirming little porker, and then, just as you begin to allow yourself the satisfaction of a smile…*WHAMO!* One of Language’s body guards has bashed you in the head, and you’re down for the count, sprawled in an ungainly heap in a mud puddle.
And, in case you’re thinking that this sounds a bit like an over-dramatization of things, here is an actual conversation that I had with my language helper this last week (via the trade language of Tok Pisin):
Seth: “OK, what is the lady doing in this picture?”
LH: “Ana ugu akikmera. She is building a fire.”
Seth: “Ugu? I thought that was the word for ‘go.’ Like, ‘anme ugupmera’ – I’m going now.”
LH: “No, you’re thinking of ‘ugu.’ Ugu means go. Ugu means fire.”
Seth: “OK, let me hear them both again.”
LH: “Ugu. Ugu. Ugu. Ugu. See? See how I’m pulling my voice?”
Seth: (*blink-blink*) “…OK, which one means go?”
LH: “Ugu. Ugu means go…of course, ugu also means ‘fog’….”
Our partners say that eventually we should be able to win over the two guys with the bats, and after that things will go a bit smoother. At least, I think that’s what they said. I had mud in my ears at the time.