Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

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Three ways I have been changed by learning another language

a miniature Danish-Norwegian-French dictionary by Tomasz Sienicki

Ok, I’m a wierdo. I love grammar. Not so much that I’ve kept learning English grammar since finishing school. Somehow, though, it came easy to me and stuck in my memory. When my husband started trying to teach me Latvian, I realized how much my brain relies on grammar. It’s a little OCD. If there’s no structure, I can’t learn it. He spoke Latvian from infancy, so as a native speaker, he just instinctively knew when it sounded right and when it didn’t. But he did NOT know the grammar terms for it. He couldn’t explain WHY it was right or wrong.

Here’s my classic example. I was reading aloud from an article in Watchtower magazine in Latvian. (Which by the way is a great resource if you’re learning another language because it’s the most widely translated magazine in the world.) My husband was correcting my pronunciation. The pronoun She was capitalized, so I knew it was referring to God, but it had a feminine ending. I was like, “whaaaat?! whyyyyy?!” And all he could say was, “I know it’s right”.

Thankfully, my official Latvian teacher was a wonderful grammarian. Her first language was different from her husband’s, and together they had lived in Latvia and learned Latvian. She needed grammar too. In the end I learned that the masculine possessive has the ending -a, which is usually a feminine ending. The text I was reading was talking about “His love”. It was not calling God a female. Now it made perfect sense!

1) So here’s my first strange side effect of learning another language: I’ve gotten worse at my English grammar! Now, the logic or spelling of Latvian sometimes creeps into my English writing or speech. The only problem is, it may or may not be logical in English too!

2) I became less polite. 

All my life it has been super important to me not to offend or make waves. But when your vocabulary is limited to the very basics, you don’t have the words to be polite.  You may not know how to say, “Please pass that delicious native dish you so hospitably cooked for us newcomers.” So you say, “Give me that,” while pointing.

Honestly, this has been a good change for me. I lived there almost 8 years, so I eventually learned how to be polite. I also learned that there’s a place and time for being straightforward and blunt. It doesn’t necessarily offend, but it may just help a situation. If I hadn’t been unable to couch my words in politeness, I may never have been brave enough to try the blunt approach.

3) I no longer enjoy baby talk as much in English.

If you know another language, you may realize the English language has something missing. I mean seriously! English has lost it’s edge a long time ago when it comes to diminutives. And how can you properly speak “baby” without diminutives! When it comes to making your speech seem more lovable and sweet, a diminutive form of the noun comes in really handy!

In the two languages I’m most familiar with besides English, they use diminutives a lot. In Spanish, it’s the ending -ito in masculine and -ita feminine. You simply tack that onto the end of a noun or even a person’s name, and presto, it sounds extra sweet and cute and lovable. In Latvian there’s more than one diminutive ending.  There’s -iņš or -ītis or -ulis masculine and -iņa or -īta or -ule feminine. Then you also have the more colloquial -ucis un -uks. The possibilities to create adorable nicknames are almost endless! You can even combine endings in Latvian. For example lāčuks (little bear) can become lāčukiņš. Which would be literally ‘little little bear’.

An excerpt from “Teach Yourself Latvian”

I looked up diminutives in English when preparing this post, and they are, or were there. They usually only show up in words that are properly in their own right diminutive, like names for baby animals. The one that seems to have been truly English and not borrowed from another language is -ing or -ling, as in duckling. Then there’s -ie or -y as in doggie or daddy. But that one is borrowed from Scottish. Then there’s -et or -let borrowed from French as in ringlet. Probably the one most used currently is -o as in kiddo.

These are not used as much as in other languages. People don’t usually just tack them on to the end of a baby’s name or a word in general. So baby talk is much more fun in other languages!

One of the principle things I learned while learning another language is the way words carry emotion, and how words, emotions, and memory are intertwined. But that will be a subject for another post, so stay tuned!