When the Joy of Learning Makes Other People Uncomfortable

I love learning languages. I absolutely love it. So much, in fact, that I’m starting to get the feeling that it annoys other people. If I find out that someone speaks one of the languages I know, I’ll happily switch into that language (thus excluding everyone else from the conversation) and babble until the other person starts to inch away from me. I can’t help it. I love practicing with native speakers and I love the challenge of switching fluidly from one language to another. For me, it’s fun. For most of the human race, it’s a headache.

While I was riding a tour bus in Shanghai, I met a guy from Germany. Only ‘met’ isn’t the right word. I noticed a European looking guy get on the bus and I wondered where he was from. The tour bus had audiotapes available in six different languages; all you had to do was plug your headphones into the seat and pick one. I watched him plug his headphones in and paid attention to which language he selected (people tell me that I have a talent for languages, but I think my real talent lies in being creepy). He picked German. Yay, native speakers! It took me a while to gather up my courage, but I eventually sat next to him and started talking to him in German.

In retrospect, I don’t think this wasn’t a very normal thing to do. Picture a German guy all by himself in China. He’s on his way to visit his brother, who works in China, but he’s taking some time to himself for now. He’s about a head taller than all of the other people in this country, and his blond hair and blue eyes cause every single person he passes to gawk at him with their own dark, squinty eyes. He stands out. People have stopped in the middle of the street to stare at him, openly discussing his every move. Some people have even followed him just so they could stare at him some more because he is obviously a foreigner and they want to see what the wacky foreigner does. He doesn’t speak the language, so he’s been getting by mostly with pointing and exaggerated facial expressions. He decides to take a day on a tour bus to get to know the city, and he’s probably looking forward to a peaceful ride without having to deal with people.

Five minutes after he gets on the bus, this brown thing with a funny accent sits next to him and starts talking to him in his native language.

He was polite enough, but it was pretty obvious that he didn’t really want to talk to anyone. After about five minutes of stilted, forced conversation, we settled into an awkward silence for the rest of the trip.

You would think that I learned from this, but no. Not even a little bit.

I met a German guy in Argentina, too. We met through a fellow student, so everyone was introduced in Spanish. When the other student introduced me, she told him that I speak German. I immediately switched into German and we chatted for a few minutes. Then another student started talking to us, so we went back to Spanish. In Spanish, he told the other student that he really hates it when people suddenly switch languages on him because it gives him a headache. Dammit.

If I happen to pick up a new word or phrase, I’ll hold onto it until I find an opportunity to use it in a conversation. It has to come up naturally, though. Going up to a group of people and saying, “Guess which word I just learned!” isn’t the same. I think the longest I’ve held onto a word like that is five months. The word was aufspießen, which means ‘to impale’ in German (in case you were wondering). That was a glorious day.

I already knew the Spanish word for ‘sweat’ (sudor), but one day I was thinking to myself and I wondered if it could be used as an adjective, like in English. I looked it up and found out that yes, it can. The word stayed in my head, and thus began the waiting.

About four days later, it happened. It was a few hours after my Latin American dance class and I was with a group of exchange students at the university. In Spanish, a Japanese student asked how my day was.

That was it. That was all he said. But the people in my head were clamoring for victory.

“This is it,” they cried. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for!”

So when he asked about my day, I answered that I just had my dance class and now I’m all sweaty.

The people in my head were celebrating. We correctly used our new word in a conversation! Congrats all around!

But the Japanese student was confused. He didn’t recognize the word I used. I ended up having to explain to him that sweaty is what happens when your skin gets all wet after you exercise. After I explained it, he looked at me like, “Eww, why would you tell me that?” The entire time, there was another student standing nearby. I didn’t even realize that he was listening until he said, “You know there are showers next to the gym, right? You can shower after class.”

Yay, learning.

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