In Kyrgyz, there’s only one letter difference between the word cow and the word house. And if you’re not a native speaker, the difference in pronunciation between those two letters is about as clear as a jar of mud.
Right after we moved out of our apartment, Laura told her friend that we had bought a house. To Laura’s surprise, her friend told her she was thinking of buying a donkey.
In another one of those strange twists of linguistic fate, there’s only a single letter difference between the present tense third person singular form of the verb love and the stem of the verb circumcise. I’d recommend being even more careful with that one than you are with the difference between house and cow.
And that’s just for starters. Because of the rules governing Kyrgyz word order, I’ve seen sentences that are literally word-for-word backward from standard English word order.
To say, “I knew a guy that liked to eat octopus,” you have to say the Kyrgyz equivalent of, “Octopus eat(+ an ending that turns verbs into nouns + direct object marker) like(+ an ending that turns verbs into adjective-like phrases) guy knew (I)”—the word “I” being conveyed not by a separate word but by an ending you add to the verb.
It’s enough to make your brain hurt. Sometimes you wonder if the damage you’ve inflicted isn’t permanent. Some things might never be the same. But I digress.
The point is that we could spend 20 years studying this language, and yet we’ll always have an accent. We weren’t spoon-fed Kyrgyz since before we have memory. People are always going to ask us where we’re from. We’re bound to miss the correct ending here or the right direct object marker there. Sometimes we’ll still inadvertently invite people over to our cow instead of to our house.
Beyond simple linguistic snafus, there are, of course, much bigger implications to the fact that we’ll always speak with an accent. In the end, an accent means that we’ll never quite fit in. Not all the way at least. There will always be that lag in understanding, that second-guessing feeling of whether we really understood or not.
And then there are cultural cues and body language. Grammatically speaking, my friend just told me he doesn’t want anything else to eat. Judging by the speed at which he made his response and what I know of the need to insist when it comes to getting people to eat, I should probably serve him another plateful.
And even when we’ve learned all we possibly can, we’ll still continue to make mistakes. At times I’ll still ask guests to shut the goat instead of the door. (A single letter in the second syllable distinguishes the two words.) I suppose it was inevitable that I once asked a woman after dinner if she was fat instead of if she was full.
The way I see it, a person’s got about three options when it comes to how to respond to a situation like this. One, you stick to English like stink on a dog. English-speaking expats and locals are in no short supply. The advantage here is that all your local friends must shoulder the burden of speaking in their foreign language while the words flow from your lips like golden drops of morning dew off a rose in early summer. It’s a viable option and one that, unfortunately, many choose.
Two, you simply go home. Sometimes you feel that desperate, especially in that gut-wrenching moment in which you realize a three-year-old can speak better than you. I read at a college level when I was in fifth grade. Now I can’t read simple street signs? Been there. Still, I think there just might be a better option.
Three, you keep trying. You take a deep breath, you swallow your over-inflated ego (that is the key right there), you step back in time to your childhood when “Mommy, we go store now?” was a completely acceptable utterance, and you spit out as many words as you possibly can in whatever order they might come spewing out.
We’ve chosen option three. In our minds, we must keep trying. We moved to their country. We stepped into their sacred space. We’re the outsiders. The burden is on us to take that first step across the seemingly infinite divide called language.
And if you’ll press into the difficulties and persevere, something beautiful awaits you. To sit around a table with local friends and eat their bread and drink their tea and laugh when everyone else is laughing is priceless.
Of course, it will take years and years and years, and even then you’ll still feel like a baby. (Think about it, even after you were submerged in your native language for seven years, you could still only talk like a second grader. You think you’re going to be able to engage in native-like adult discourse with your new local friends after a year? I’m afraid you’re living in a fantasy world.) But I’m telling you, the perseverance is worth it.
And perhaps even more important than that, it’s absolutely necessary—if, that is, your goal is to have a deep, lasting impact on the majority of the population that cannot carry on any type of meaningful conversation with you in English.
If you’ve ever found yourself awash in a churning sea of foreign words and phrases and you suddenly hear a “Oh, hello, can I help you?” then you might be able to grasp how powerful one’s native language can sound to that one. It’s enough to make you want to give a complete stranger a hug. Or cry. Or both.
If someone speaking in your native language can have that deep of an effect on you, how much of an effect do you think you might be able to have if you’re able to reach out and touch, not just a person’s auditory cortex, but their very heart? Yes, you might say circumcise instead of love. It happens to the best of us. You just laugh, let them correct you—they will love the opportunity to correct you!—and move along.
In fact, if you’ll let it, the mistakes will bind you even closer to your local friends. Not only will they see a person who loves and respects them enough to put in the long hours of study needed to conjugate verbs in their four (yes, four!) past tenses, they’ll also see a person who’s humble enough to become a child once more for their sake and for the sake of establishing and maintaining a relationship with them.
You meet a person on those terms (with love, respect, and humility), and I’m telling you you’ll be in prime position to impact him throughout the rest of his life, and if I’m not mistaken, perhaps beyond.
It’s not a task for the faint of heart. (To this day I get the word heart and the word corn confused.) But it’s worth it. And the fruit is worth it. Even if you must sow for years and years and years before you see a single stock of corn, or a single heart touched, whatever the case may be.
So keep at it, language learner, even if the syllables falling out of your mouth sound like rain on a tin roof. You’ll touch someone’s heart, and—I tremble at the thought—some of your babbling just might prove to be the very words of life.