In a certain way, the learning of a new language is always a love story. Though its applications are often much more functional than they are romantic, the discovery of something so rich and complex — something which contained and created such a vast history before you even thought to seek it out — always comes with an element of infatuation. There is something profoundly humbling about staring before a vast expanse of words and phrases and sounds that insist on taking shape slowly, methodically, and only for the most patient touch. The thrilling gains and frustrating plateaus of navigating a linguistic landscape which was not made with you in mind, while often driving us to the brink of exasperation over our own abilities, constantly remind us that there are near-endless other worlds out there to be explored.
There are, of course, the first toddler-like steps you take when you fumble through words and sentence structures with all of the grace and nuance of a bull in a china shop. You mash your words together, you hesitate and stutter through even your most simple phrases — the act of putting together a coherent thought seems too daunting to ever be a realistic possibility. But with language we seek out, there is always that love, that heady thrill that comes with collecting little morsels of knowledge about this vast new tapestry of communication. It could be the culture of the speakers you have fallen for, or the language’s literature, or simply the way the sounds roll from deep in the back of the throat and bounce off the tip of the tongue. You might enjoy the soft, rich tones of French or the elegant, rhythmic cadence of Japanese. There might be just a haunting depth to the words being spoken in that language which, for you, extends far beyond the content of what is being said.
And this love pushes you through frustrating hours of rote study that can feel more stilted than arithmetic and more futile than holding wind in your hands. Running a constant obstacle course, you conduct your first conversations and start to feel as though the language you are speaking is no longer simply memorized sounds being grasped from thin air. The sounds begin to take forms that follow one another, that make sense, that form coherent stories and thoughts and expressions — the small bits you retain come along with their context, part of a greater whole that you are beginning to understand. There is a shape forming around you, and though you cannot fully identify its lines or curves, you are aware that it is present — that it provides the backdrop of everything you are beginning to use yourself. The sounds around you start to build to a kind of frenzied crescendo of understanding, bombarding you with meanings and histories that you are now starting to put into neat little categories, egging you on to take the essential next step.
So you immerse yourself. You go to a place where you can marinate fully in not just the sounds and songs and the idiomatic expressions, but the people and the colors and smells and everything that makes the language something less tangible than a set of characters written out in a certain order. The sound of the language falls around you like heavy, warm blankets, telling you over and over that you are learning, making even the most mundane exchanges profoundly interesting. Every day, every second, provides a new opportunity to trip and stumble into a new level of understanding, of pronunciation, of fluid ability to express oneself.
Your first dream in your new language wakes you up with a kind of conviction in your ability to learn that is rarely experienced. The brain seems almost to have run away with the knowledge you have fed into it, to have taken it and molded it into something that can no longer be fully expressed in speech. The language has taken root in you and expanded throughout every corner of your subconscious, unfurling and wrapping itself around concepts that you once considered unique to your mother tongue. To think, to feel, to make jokes in this new language feels almost a privilege, something that must be tended to and expanded so as not to rest on some sophomoric plateau of half-understanding.
But learning becomes more fluid now, less an active seeking out of information and more a gradual taking in of all that’s around you. True, there remains as much as ever to learn about the second language, but now that you can see it through the better-adapted prism of itself, the concepts and grammatical structures and slang become parts of a whole you have already constructed and are now coloring in. You have swam upstream, and now you can bathe in the calmer waters of unintentional learning.
Every word becomes a gift. Every stone is upturned to reveal a new way of thinking that seems to not exist in your maternal language. The responses that you now have to certain things seem tempered, if not fully colored, by a new culture and phrasing through which to process it. The snowball seems to roll ever-faster downhill, collecting more nuance than you ever considered possible when you embarked on the journey, when you learned your first pronouns. The expressions that once seemed isolated in a cloud of guttural sounds and glottal stops have now become fully-formed aspects of daily life. You are no longer learning a language, you are simply living in it. Many people may doubt your accent, ask where you come from, or even assume you are a native speaker. Your grasp on the spoken word no longer seems even in the realm of the secondary, it seems something you have innately. You are, as we have come to call it, fluent.
There will come moments when you trip over your own tongue which, in some ways, will always remain a tourist to these words. You may stumble and see yourself in the more unflattering mirror of a visitor who hasn’t quite figured everything out. The vast expanses of shared cultural history and references that will always to some degree elude you begin to seem like a horizon past which you cannot see. But to have climbed that mountain and, more importantly, to have realized that the top of this mountain is just another flat, everyday piece of land to a whole other world of native speakers — that can never be replaced.