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.
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.
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.