When I’m learning a language, everything begins as a tongue twister. There is a big difference for me between learning grammar and words, and really learning a language. The accent matters, taking the time to retrain your mouth and tongue to make sounds you have never had to matters. When I learn a language, I don’t want to speak it as an American, I want to really speak it.
The problem comes when I have to figure out what accent to learn. In California I was surrounded by the Mexican border accent, a mix of Spanish and English. However, with all the people traveling through, there are accents from all over Latin America there. In Guadalajara, the accent was different, with the “ll” sounding more like a “j” sound. Words were different, in usage and style, from the Spain Spanish they taught us in high school. I never finished learning the language the way I wanted, but I was at least starting to learn more than just the language.
I may be going to Sichuan, which has a very different accent than most places in China. The base words and characters are supposed to be the same, but they use different accent marks on many words. Even the name Sichuan, Four Rivers, is pronounced differently by locals. Wherever I go in China, I will probably have to relearn the language to fit where I go.
I know I don’t have to. I know I can get by with a different accent, or an American accent. I really don’t understand how people can just not bother trying. If you put in the years to learn to speak another language, why not learn to speak it correctly. I have taught enough English to know that not everyone can hear the difference, can adjust their accent, or can make the physical changes easily to sound native. I’m told that I am good with that kind of adaptation, but I won’t really know in Mandarin until I can hold a conversation.
Adaptation is a strange thing. Most people do it without realizing, for better or worse. We adapt to our lives as they are, however horrifying they may be. Slow changes are easy to deal with, easy to rationalize. A job that gets progressively worse. A life that gets better over time. Damage, healing, misery, joy. If they’re slow, I never realize the change has taken place at all. It’s just life.
Learning to adapt to something by choice is harder. Taking control of all the systems that you never had to before. It’s like changing the way you breathe. You can do it, but you won’t know that you are having any impact until it’s tested. Everything is ordinary until it isn’t.
Adapting to the unexpected is the hardest for anyone, I think. Moving across the country, or around the world is easy if you are prepared, but it’s not something you can really prepare for. Everything is new, a surprise you cannot expect. You can look up what might be, but living in a new place is always a shock. Home sickness is our body and mind failing to adapt. Some people learn, some people don’t. Some people leave, and some survive, whether they adapt or not.
Some things in life you cannot walk away from, you cannot escape, and you cannot undo. How do you adapt when the world falls apart? “What do you do when your foundation falls apart?” I used to think I was clever, believing that I could just build a new one, given time.
The truth is, I have never truly been tested. I have never had my world fall completely apart. I’ve come close, but there was always something left, some fragment to stand on while I rebuild. As I get older, I realize that I am going to have to face that kind of disaster one day, and I am not arrogant enough to believe that I will adapt as easily as I always have.