What Are Words For?

Last summer I came down with a mean case of Why-Certainly-I-Read-Classic-Literature-itis and I cracked open Anna Karenina. I went into it sure that the 10,000 Russian names, many of them variations of each other, would be too much for me, but I came out the other side a little shell-shocked. Mark my words, that Tolstoy fellow is going places.

There are a lot of important lessons in Anna Karenina. “Wow, tuberculosis is bad,” for example, and, “Perhaps we could all be more careful around trains.” But the one thing that really affected me is how every single main character is trilingual. They switch between Russian, French, and English without notice and no one ever says, “Hold up. I actually only speak one extremely complicated language.”

At least, not in my translation.

At least, not in my translation.

Why can’t I do that? Calling myself fluent in one language is a stretch (sure, I can read, write, and understand English, but you should hear me try to speak it), but I wish very badly that I knew more. I’m not sure why, to be honest. I’d probably just show off at parties and annoy my friends, but that seems like a good enough reason to me. So I found Duolingo, a website that gives you lessons and exercises for free, and I began my quest to become a polyglot.

Thoughts I Had Just Before Starting

  1. This will be great — words are my thing! Math, no. Science, not so much. Useful technical skills, not at all. But I’m a fifth-grade spelling bee champion. These other languages won’t know what hit them.
  2. Man, I probably have a serious advantage over other people who are learning new languages because I correct grammar for a living. It’s really not even fair.
  3. I’ll start with Spanish because I studied it for the better part of a decade. I’ll test out of most of the lessons and then polish up what I forgot in, like, a week tops.
  4. I’m going to be able to say so many things in Spanish. I should definitely look into translation careers.
  5. My pronunciation is amazing. I’m pretty sure I sound like a native speaker. How embarrassing for other Americans. Poor suckers.
  6. I’ll just practice for a few minutes a day, when I have a chance. This is for fun! No pressure.

But then I got into the first lesson and it was not like that. At all.

Expectations, Subverted

  1. Here’s a news flash: Words are just groups of sounds that we’ve collectively decided mean a thing. And letters are just random lines and dots that are supposed to represent those sounds. Letters that have the same shape don’t even make the same sound across different languages. (I’m looking at you, J.) I go to work every single day and arrange lines and dots to make sounds that only mean something to a few people who happen to use that line-dot/sound system. And that’s how my existential crisis began.
  2. Any knowledge I have of English grammar has not helped me. In Spanish, for example, adjectives come after the thing they describe, so the ends of sentences are always a surprise. I have to wait until the end of the phrase to find out that the psychopath we were talking about is cute, and the manatee we were discussing is dead. I can’t handle the twists!

    The whole language is an emotional roller coaster.

    The whole language is an emotional roller coaster.

  3. I studied Spanish for seven years and the only things I can remember are the words for a few pieces of furniture and colors. Verbs, which are the trickiest words, have totally disappeared from my head. I can describe yellow chairs and blue tables all day, but I can’t tell you what to do with them. I’ll just work on my miming.
  4. I can only think in very simple sentences so far. I once read that Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek are friends, and sometimes I like to picture phone calls between them in which they speak Spanish. But since I can only understand incredibly simple sentences, these imaginary phone calls usually go like this:

    P: Hello. I can buy red shoes.

    S: I like your red shoes. I am rich and beautiful.

    P: Yes, me too. Do you have a car?

    S: No. Goodbye.

  5. I’m never going to open my mouth and let another language come out. One Duolingo feature asks you to speak phrases into your computer’s microphone. When I do that, it pauses for a minute and finally brings up an error message that says, “That doesn’t sound quite right. Try again!”
  6. If you’re an achievement zombie — the sort of person who relentlessly completes tasks in pursuit of the high you get from accomplishing something —Duolingo is kind of dangerous. It rewards you for finishing lessons with points, increasing levels of expertise, and victorious sound effects, and it’s really easy to get sucked in and never come up for air. I don’t like the person I’ve become. “I’m 57% fluent in Spanish according to one website!” I keep announcing to my friends. “Mesa! Gato! Izquierda!” So far they’ve all been too polite to point out that 57% fluency is not at all fluent, but I definitely get the impression they’re not as interested as they once were.

It doesn’t matter, though. After a straight month of Spanish practice, I’ve finally finished all the lessons and have moved into a “practice and perfect” stage. Now I’m starting French. Je suis une petite fille! Je ne suis pas un chat!

Pictured: Not Me.

Pictured: Not Me.


  1. Todd Duffey Writes on Things

    Hilarious! And insightful! ALWAYS “MARQUE DOS” if you can’t get through on an English-speaking automated phone line. – You will get through a LOT faster AND you will be treated royally when someone gets to you!

    Here’s to 57%!

  2. Athena

    Thanks for the heads up on Anna Karenina. I’ve been meaning to read that but the length, er, the thickness of the book just about subverts any plans in my head to do so … And congratulations on your Spanish fluency – learning Spanish will make French easier for you.

  3. lainamunoz

    That was fantastic and hilarious. I (an american) live with two other americans, a native Kiwi who speaks Maori and three Brazilians. My adventures in Duolingo lasted a few months in Portuguese until school hit the deep end. I can say “Hello, how are you” and tell them that I’m doing fine.

  4. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 10/06/15 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s