I have a friend who loves mushroom gathering. He takes his kids to the woods and everyone looks for mushrooms, and when they find them, they put them in the basket. After and hour or two, they go back to the car, and in the grass they dump out all the mushrooms and sort them into different varieties. With a field guide, he looks up each variety, sorting the piles into edible, inedible, and unknown. Gathering up the first pile, he puts them back in the basket and takes his family home to enjoy the harvest.
So how does he make sure not to poison his family?
He’s no expert, but he has a field guide and mushroom-hunting friends. He uses his guide to pick out the useful mushrooms and errs on the side of caution. He may bring some of the questionable ones to ask his friends about. Even when collecting goes badly and nothing is edible, he and his family learn about the life of the forest ecosystem: what mushrooms grow where, how living things decompose, and how the forest changes in subtle ways from month to month. After a few years, he picks out some edible ones with confidence.
What languages do you know…badly?
Any polyglot or anyone with learning languages as a hobby will have received this question. I usually start with my best and move down the list to the worst, usually trailing off into the ones for which I barely remember a word.
If I want to know about the language ecosystem around me, I don’t have to be an expert. I only have to enter into that forest. Even if I only have a guidebook, I can start observing, collecting, and sorting—tasting only what I’m sure about. If I don’t learn any new words, I can always enjoy the speakers around me
Someone told me the story of an event that convinced her that she was bad at languages. She had been learning French in high school. She went to Montreal and ordered a pastry in French. The person responded in plain old French—way faster than she could understand anything. She was ashamed and humiliated—never to return to speaking a foreign language.
She’s not bad at languages; she’s a novice, still learning about what works and what doesn’t.
Enjoy what you know
The secret is to rejoice in what you know, not scare yourself by what you don’t know. I knew a guy in Kiev who literally knew one word of English: “Yes.” He would use it every chance he could with me, and was happy when I reacted. Good for him!
You can learn mushrooms by gathering them and looking them up. You can learn a language by gathering a few words and tasting the ones you trust.
When I leave the parking garage at work, I always greet the attendants in Amharic. They know me by now, and they try to teach me something new to say—though I never remember it by the next time.
I will be going to Greece soon. I will trot out my 20 year-old, never-really-ever-good Modern Greek. “Where is the…uh…big [follow my finger as I trace it in the air for you]?” is a good one. Another is, “I don’t know. I know very little Greek.”
Guess what? That is how I started every language I learned.
I speak Russian fluently and have worked as an interpreter. Yet it has not always been so.
In my second year of learning the language, I ran into some Russians in a touristy part of Colorado. (This was in the late 80s, so these were the first Russians I had ever seen in person.) I managed to say hello and my name. I couldn’t really say much else, so taking pity on my, this man just had me review the days of the week with him (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…). Just like my friend’s mushrooms, he and I looked over what I had gathered, selected what we knew was safe, and enjoyed.
What language do you know badly? Get it out. Dust it off. Speaking badly is the first step to speaking well. If you don’t enter the forest, you are guaranteed not to get sick from mushrooms. If you get in and search, though, you will likely find a few tasty ones. If you don’t find any good ones, you will have experienced a great time in the forest, nevertheless.