Nerozumieš: You Don’t Understand
It starts to rain while I have my back to the window. I have asked my students to list all the English words for the members of a family, and now that they rattled off the easy ones—mother, father, brother, sister—and are struggling to remember that more distant vocabulary, I turn around to see water cascading in sheets from the eaves above the classroom window. The yellow concrete block of flats where I live stands across the street, and I can see one of my three pairs of pants and four of my seven shirts hanging on the laundry line that folds out from my window, being pommelled by rain, and I say aloud, “It keeps raining and I’ve had clothes on the line for two days now. I have nothing else to wear.”
Blank faces. Bored faces. Two boys who’ve been chattering and giggling in Slovak since class began continue their chattering and giggling, unaware of any break in the lesson. “If I talk real fast,” I say, talking fast, “you won’t understand a word I say.”
Veronika, my only student near conversational in English, squints her eyes to signal that she no longer follows. I know the gesture well; I give it to strangers a dozen times a day.
“It’s hard being the only native speaker in town,” I go on, fast and slurred, my words hardly leaving the throat. (Like you have hot potatoes in your mouth, the resident English teacher tells me of my American accent.) “It’s hard here, being trapped in my language. People look at me like I’m stupid and I think everyone is insulting me to my face.”
One of the boys in the back apparently says something funny because the class erupts into laughter. I stand there watching them laugh and shout in sounds that mean nothing to me. I let the bedlam go on uninhibited, smiling as if I am equally humored. I watch the rain, watch the thick purple sky, watch the many mouths moving, holding my dry erase marker to my chin and thickening beard.
A boy named Matúš leans forward in his seat, and out of the chaos, shouts, “Great-grandfather.” The class turns their attention to him, and he sits in triumph, waiting for me to write the word on the board.
The best thing about living in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language is the ability to slide into solitude wherever I am. At home in the US, I have often had moments at parties, in the supermarket, even in the company of my closest friends, when I’d like to retreat into my thoughts and block out the distractions of humanity’s constant chatter. Surrounded, and expected to respond and contribute, many times I have wished for quiet. Here, I get that every day: in the office with the fifteen plus middle-aged women who offer sweet cakes and smile brightly when I enter the room, in the town center where I linger long after dark for the free Wi-Fi, in the restaurant where I take my gulaš or halušky or pirohy for lunch each day, even at a crowded volleyball game between the home team and whatever’s written on the other team’s jersey. I can choose to vanish, right in the middle of a conversation, and conflate all those separate voices into one drone. I can ignore everyone—my thoughts, my language, it belongs to only me.
I moved to Svidník, Slovakia to teach English in a small vocational secondary school. When people here ask why I chose to leave my American metropolis for a small town in northeast Slovakia, a town without a train station or university, a town two hours from Ukraine and its burgeoning war where it’s so difficult to find work it seems everyone between the age of 18 and 45 has fled to Austria or England or someplace west of here, I’m not sure how to answer. I heard it was a lovely place, I’ll say, in some variation or another. Do you like the food? they ask. Yes, I like the food. Yes, the countryside is very beautiful. Yes, the people are very nice. In truth, I knew little to nothing about Slovakia before coming here. In Vienna, almost ten years ago, when I had just begun to make travel a part of who I am, I looked at Bratislava on a map, only an hour away, as some sort of vacancy in space. I imagined Slovakia as some impermeable space; something I believed in, theoretically, but which I could never actually enter like that two-dimensional wall in a video game that suggests the world continues but does not permit passage. In all honesty, I had little reason to apply for this job. It sounded like an adventure. I liked the way the word Slovakia felt in my mouth, in my plans. I knew there was good hiking and a lot of castles, as Wikipedia explained. On the morning I left home, I printed out a list of Slovak greetings and pleasantries and rehearsed them on the flight from New York to Moscow. Dobrý deň, I practiced, somewhere high over Greenland. Ďakujem, prosím, dovidenia.
Like many Americans, I’m a monoglot. There isn’t an immigrant in my family since the 19th century and though very little of me is ancestrally English, these are the words with which I understand the world. I’ve heard Eskimos have a hundred terms for ice and that Arabic is constant poetry, constant praises, but all I have is ice and a clutter of tenses and prepositions and our nonsense uses of the words do and have. In high school, I took Spanish classes. In my travels in Latin America, those remembered basics have come in handy: Good day. I want to buy the watermelon, please. In college, I took German classes. Six years later, when one of my Slovak colleagues asks if I Sprechen sie Deutsch? I tell her, Ja, ein bisschen, and then when she launches into a rattle of familiar but unintelligible sounds, I must stop her, saying, I’m sorry. I forgot my German. I don’t understand. She nods, kindly, and then leaves me standing by myself. Strangers introduce themselves to me in Slovak. On len hovorí po anglický, my friends interrupt. He only speaks English.
Nerozumieš? the stranger asks me, a little unsure. You don’t understand?
A few months before coming to Slovakia, I was volunteering at a hostel in the coastal jungle of northern Colombia. Most of the guests were European, and in the evenings I served coffee and beer and joined conversation around the table while geckos croaked in the corrugated tin roof and fat toads scurried around our feet to eat the beetles knocking themselves senseless against the phosphorescent lights. The guests came from Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Germany, and Norway. Conversation often migrated into English to include me, but then someone might remark in Spanish or French and I was suddenly marooned, left staring at the table and peeling the label from an empty beer bottle.
I have wished for years that I had tried to learn another language at an earlier age. I wish my parents exposed me, in whatever way possible, to languages other than English. I learned in a linguistics course in college that we lose the ability to become a native speaker at the age of seven. Of course, there is time enough to become fluent after that cut off, but it takes determined study, immersion, patience. Fortunately for me, through British imperialism and American-led globalization, the world has adopted my language as la lingua franca of international communication. I am at no loss for popular film, television, or literature in its original form. If I want to take a tour of any major attraction in the world, in Italy or Ecuador or India or anywhere else, chances are they’ll offer guides for me. When I am traveling abroad, no matter where I am, I will hear and see English in public. In the clatter of unintelligible sound in a Slovak shopping mall or the public square of a Quechua-speaking Peruvian village I will hear Facebook, Star Trek, Samsung Galaxy, workshop, internet, fucking shit, mobile phone, How I Met Your Mother and suddenly the drone of random words will take shape in my mind as an image or idea, floating there, without context.
I tell people, these people with a library of tongues, that I wish I had grown up in contact with so many languages; that Americans are not uninterested in learning to speak to the rest of the world, but simply are not forced to as those in multilingual cultures—like a man I met in Guatemala, Daniel, who has scarcely left a constellation of villages surrounding his own but speaks Spanish, two indigenous Mayan languages, and his self-taught English; or Tina, a Belgian woman I met in Colombia, who speaks Spanish with her husband from Madrid, English at her job in Antwerp, Flemish with her parents, and who insists the French and German she used in university has grown rusty; or my Slovak friend Lenka, who, though she has scarcely left Slovakia, speaks fluent English and conversational German and Spanish. I’m jealous, I tell these people. But you speak English, they tell me, the language the whole world is trying to learn.
Moving from my home in the sprawling megalopolis of the American capitol to live in a town of less than twelve thousand people, where, even though English is now compulsory in schools, very few individuals are fluent, my only rubric for friendship is the ability to communicate. My best friends are the school principal, the pawnbroker, the preteen boys who let me join their soccer games, the upholstery cleaner, and the pharmacist. Their level of fluency ranges from keeping score to an opinion on the best Czech translations of Dostoevsky, and they understand me, more or less, given I keep my SAT words and slang to a minimum. Each time I meet them for beer or food, they point to items in the room and speak a sound I find difficult to retain.
Zemiak, they say, lifting a boiled potato from their soup.
Lyžica, they say, waving the spoon.
Srdce, they say, touching a finger to the chest, just above the heart.
I repeat their sounds, wanting these words to solidify somewhere in my mind, but my tongue trips, loses its rhythm, and they laugh at my nearness to sense. At how I stumble through sounds their toddlers have mastered. At how foolish it sounds when I say my full name, which people often hear as “Andrew Python.”
“Python. Like bow?” asks my friend Stefan.
“Snake. Kill you with make you not breathe,” he says, using his own bicep to fake-choke himself.
I am learning, I tell them. I am learning even though this is a language spoken exclusively within a nation of five million, a population smaller than my home state of Maryland, and the day I return to my native country, I may never hear these sounds again. I am learning, even though I become easily exasperated when I try to understand why the word for “girl” is the neutral gender and why every noun has about twelve different suffixes depending on its location in the sentence. I am learning, though sometimes I feel it would be easier if they just spoke English—the language of travel, of business, of so much culture and power.
My mother likes to tell a story about her first trip abroad, in her fifties as a chaperone to my sister’s Girl Scout troop: she and my sister became separated from the group in downtown Paris and had to take a taxi back to their hotel. Neither my mother nor my sister knew the name or address of the hotel, so the taxi driver, who explained in broken English that he didn’t understand her, ended up taking an extremely long route through the chaotic midday traffic. My frustrated mother demanded he stop the car, and then he made a few turns and they found the hotel.
He understood me, she will say. He just wanted to cheat me out of an extra buck.
Maybe he just didn’t speak English, Mom, I will say.
He knew exactly what I was saying.
How do you know?
A common question asked of me while traveling in South America, usually in the smaller, out-of-the-way villages, went something like this: Which was harder for you to learn, English or Spanish? In essence, I usually understood the question as, Which is harder for someone to learn, English or Spanish? But when I would explain, in my elementary Spanish, that I didn’t exactly learn English, that this particular language was a gift of my earliest days, they would ask again, insisting I didn’t understand the question. But which is harder for you to speak, English or Spanish?
Well, Spanish, I’d say.
Because Spanish is a more complicated language?
No, because English is already my language. Spanish is new for me.
Spanish is much easier for me, they would say. English seems strange.
All the world grounded into one set of words from their birth, they found difficulty in understanding that what is meaning and feeling and sustenance to them, could to another be merely a series of sounds, a combination of teeth and tongue and lips to memorize and never to truly know.
I grew up in a diverse area, and on any given year in elementary school my class would include a student who’d just moved to the US from Ghana, from El Salvador, from Pakistan, from Vietnam. I was interested in these children and the languages they produced when they met their siblings in the hallways or on the bus, but I admit to joining in the teasing for their differences. When Nelson, who entered the fourth grade halfway through the year and who spoke only Spanish, peed himself in class because he didn’t know how to ask for the bathroom, I laughed and excluded him from playground games. I called Shahib stupid for not knowing to dribble the basketball in gym class and thought the same of Olu just because he occasionally mispronounced a word, even though he’d all but mastered the language in two years.
Sometimes coaxing my students to blunder through this foreign language can be excruciatingly slow, even leave me feeling hopeless. After upwards of a decade of studying English, some stare back exasperated when I ask them directly, How are you today, Erik? Do you have any brothers or sisters, Šimona? They turn to their neighbor, with a grin of cynicism or confusion, and ask Čo hovorí? What is he saying?
Sometimes I leave the classroom mad at the students for not caring, mad at the school system for having such low expectations of them, mad at myself for failing them as a teacher. Sometimes I tell myself I will work through this year and then I will leave and forget my failed experiment of living and teaching in Slovakia. But of course, I remind myself, I cannot be frustrated with my students for failing to do what I myself never accomplished: to become bilingual, to understand the sounds and expressions and interpretations of another culture so thoroughly that I am able to speak among them undetected, to think in the language in which they think.
As the months advance, and my presence as the young foreigner loses its novelty, I begin to lose the focus of my students. They poke at their phones, talk over me, and ignore my polite requests for their attention. One day, I am trying to teach the conditional verbs. If you could visit anywhere, where would you go? What would you do if you won the lottery? Who should never try to swim?
“Muž bez ruky,” says Dominik, and when his classmates laugh, I laugh, too.
They stare at me, startled.
“What?” I ask them. “Muž bez ruky. A man without arms, right?”
“How did you learn Slovak?” asks Adam.
I smile. Three-dozen eyeballs are fixed on me. I move on to the next question.
In the evenings, after I teach, after I pull on my rain coat and shuffle into town for fresh bread or dish soap or just the company of human movement, I often settle at my kitchen table with a beer and a dictionary. I have labeled everything in my flat with yellow Post-It notes: OKNO sticks to the window at my side and STOLIČKA to the empty chair beside me. I imagine scenarios and I rehearse them on paper, to the walls, sitting on the toilet. Jeden lístok do Košic, prosím. One ticket to Košice, please. Mám rád bicykli, basketbal, turistika, a čítanie. I like bicycling, basketball, hiking, and reading. Je to sídlo zadarmo? Is this seat taken?
I know that to my neighbors, who can surely hear me through these thin, communist-era walls, I must sound like a fool. Čia je to lampa? I say to myself. Whose lamp is it? over and over again. Tvoja! I imagine them shouting. Yours! It’s your lamp! I know that my students will giggle each morning when I wave to the janitor and return his dobré ráno. But I am practicing, I am blundering—I am trying, a word at a time, to speak myself out of the silence.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.