I have always loved words. In school, the vocabulary portion of my English classes was always one of my favorites. Today, I keep a Google doc of words that are new to me to try to amplify my vocabulary. Today’s addition: bivouac. I discovered it in Scott Stossel’s eloquent prose in The Atlantic, a heartbreaking but also empowering tale about his lifelong struggle with crippling anxiety. It’s inspiring that Stossel writes such a candid exposé of his mental illness, even if I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he described clogging a toilet at the Kennedy estate. I wish more people would be so brave–to write so honestly, that is, not to clog powerful political potties (insert “they’re already filled with plenty of shit” joke here).
Perhaps related to being a logophile is the thrill I derive from learning a new language. I’m currently learning Portuguese for an upcoming trip to Brazil. Throughout the process, I’m frequently amazed by the way the human mind works. Words I didn’t know I knew form in my mouth inexplicably. There are so many theories about learning a new language–the number of times you must repeat a word before it’s cemented in your brain, the amount of time you can practice a new language daily before the exercise is futile, the association of a word with a picture to create a better linkage in your brain. For me, it’s a combination of all of these things.
Portuguese is a beautiful, lilting language, with a cadence at times reminiscent of Italian. I try not to get self-conscious about how slowly I speak or the fact that I frequently butcher grammar. And my new Brazilian friends are always patient and encouraging. Como se diz, “I forgot how to say…?” Even with my constant blunders, the process of learning the words is fascinating–as I type the word words, my brain is buzzing palavras palavras palavras.
In my opinion, the best part about learning a language is the way it makes you relate to yourself and shapes how you interact with the world. As I speak another language, I find that I take on a new persona, and I think this is true with any bilingual or trilingual person. I’m sure my mom, who was born in Poland, reinvented a part of herself through language during her transition to America at the age of 18. English gave her a chance to start over.
For me, the careful, calculated way I attempt to speak Portuguese serves as a reminder to me to be more selective in the words I choose daily. I’m more attentive to what I’m saying, how I say it, and the message I want to convey. Sadly, this is something I think most people (myself included) fail at daily. Comment sections on websites and YouTube always reinforce the fact that most people don’t think before they speak (or type). Sorry for so many poop references in one post, but we’ve become a world of verbal diarrhea. We don’t think before we excoriate others with our words. We call people ugly, stupid, bad parents, and worse at the drop of a hat. A journalist posts something we disagree with and there are those who tell him to kill himself. I’m not yet a parent, but I struggle with the idea of bringing my children up in a world where cruelty has become so convenient.
I don’t have an easy ending to this post. It’s been a lot of ideas in one, and I apologize for the stream-of-consciousness. But that’s the great thing about words–they eddy in all directions, and like fireflies, we catch the ones that sparkle most when they come along.