English as a Second Language (or third, or fourth)

We just spent a year in Thailand, and even though I tried my best to learn Thai in three months of lessons, not much stuck. I spoke more Spanish after two weeks of lessons than I did Thai after twelve. And not many Thais speak English. It’s really hard for them, and their schools are less than rigorous, so English speakers just expect not to be able to talk to Thais about much more than how much something costs.

Here, in Dubai, everybody thinks they speak English, but most of them do so with a variety of accents that are so thick that they might as well be speaking Icelandic or Maori. I’ve never seen such a polyglot crowd as the populace of this place. I was going to use the word “cosmopolitan” but then I realized that wasn’t really the right word, for it implies sophistication. Never have I seen such a melting pot of races and tongues, and the only common language they have is English, though to the casual, untrained ear you’d never know it. I don’t feel I can smirk or feel superior, as I have limited command of two other languages besides English, and knowing any foreign language at all makes me a veritable oddity in my country. Where I come from if you talk English, you’re normal, and any other language is for weirdos, who are probably just putting on airs. We secretly believe if you wake them up in the middle of the night and ask them a question, they’ll forget their posing and talk normal.



Suddenly Struck Stupid

As the movie “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” showed, in the future a whole lot of people who never considered themselves travelers are going to wind up in foreign countries because they can no longer afford medical care or even to simply live in their own. In a lot of these countries they end up in, the populace will not speak English.

One of the ancillary effects of growing old is an increasing sense of isolation. Now that you are no longer cute, people tend to ignore you. You fade into the woodwork. And if you can’t speak the language, this happens even faster, making the loneliness more profound.

So there’s a market that didn’t exist before. Teaching older Americans to speak Spanish or Thai. Waiting for the host country’s populace to learn English simply isn’t an option. They’re working on it, but they’re much less motivated by loneliness than the elderly ex-pat.

Learning Spanish is a piece of cake compared to learning Thai. It’s quite a shock to realize that not only can you not speak to anyone, you can’t even read the signage. When you were four years old you couldn’t read, but you knew how to say and comprehend three or four hundred of the most important words in oral communication. Now you don’t even know those!


Why can’t they learn English?


It’s not a contest to see who can get there quickest, nor is it something only certain talented people can do. Anyone can make a start on learning the local patois and make steady progress. Like learning to play a musical instrument, slow and steady wins the race. It will only be agonizing if you manufacture and then listen to a critical voice in your head that says you’re not progressing quickly enough. As you may recall from earlier times, comparing yourself to others, real or imagined, is guaranteed misery.

A common reaction to the challenge of learning another language at a relatively advanced age is to protest, “I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.” As if there were people who were uniquely talented in language acquisition, and it was their job to learn other languages. What a lame excuse! Learning a few hundred words in another tongue takes only weeks of work, and provides a foundation that will pay handsome rewards in the future. Imagine what you could learn if you could only talk to your neighbors.

I’m a veteran of talking myself out of things that I’m afraid would be too difficult.

When I was thirteen, I went through a phase of wanting to play the guitar. My family was struggling economically, so I knew I would have to earn and save money to buy the guitar myself. I thought about guitars night and day. I never did any more than daydream about learning the guitar, and I never bought a guitar.

Then, when I was sixteen, I went through the phase again. This time, I told myself that it was too late, and that because I hadn’t started when I was thirteen, I was already way behind in the race.

When I was twenty, I had another guitar attack, but by now the rationalizations were well set in place, and I was able to convince myself that it was hopeless. I told myself that I would be willing to go through the process of learning those damn chords only if I could find a special guitar suited for my special personality, one that would allow me to skip the drudgery that others endured. A cursory search proved that no such guitar existed.

Now, I am in my early sixties, and I still have not learned to play the guitar. Obviously, I am a man of strong convictions!

I tell this story not to inspire pity, but to remind myself that much more than external circumstances, my beliefs have pretty much determined the course of my life.

If ever there were a time to stop such defeatist nonsense, it is now. Blessed with exotic homes separated by distance and time from our past lives, we have been granted a new lease on life. Today, I can’t imagine a better tonic than learning something new.

I’m working on learning Thai, taking piano lessons and practicing about an hour a day on a couple of Chopin nocturnes, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, painting a few pictures every now and then, taking photographs, and writing this. That’s enough to give me a sense of participating in life.