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Original Essays

Confessions of a Language Fanatic

by Elizabeth Little
  1. Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Little's strong sense of humor never overwhelms her love of languages in this fascinating yet educational introduction to linguistics for a wide, pop-savvy audience." Publishers Weekly
One of my earliest memories is from preschool. It was lunchtime, and they were serving orange drink. Not orange juice, but that super-saccharine milk-cartoned cafeteria beverage that passed for orange juice in the country's nutritionally deficient school districts. It was my favorite, and I was so eager to get to the beverage coolers and claim a carton of my own that my four-year-old legs started propelling me through the halls as fast as they could go.

Out of nowhere, the dark and hulking figure of the assistant principal materialized. I slid to a stop. He stalked over to me, scowling, looking like nothing so much as a cartoon villain. As cartoons constituted at that point the bulk of my life experience, I was, naturally, terrified.

"And just what do we think we're doing?" he asked me. In later years I would wonder at his choice of pronoun. At the time I just whimpered.

"Running?" I said, meekly.

"And are we supposed to run in the halls?"

I squeaked. "No?"

"Correct. See that it doesn't happen again."

With a last, dark look, he swept off, and I stood stock-still in the hallway, quietly reprimanding myself for my bad behavior until my classmates caught up.

I haven't been able to drink anything orange since.

The hot flush of wrong-doing stuck with me. It haunted me. I was determined never to feel it again. Running went the way of orange beverages, as did shouting, crying, and teasing. I became an outrageously well-behaved child. Eventually my preternatural fear of failure began to affect not just my behavior, but also my studies. From kindergarten on, I was a textbook teacher's pet, a straight-A student, a swotty little suck-up.

Of course, no one can stay perfect forever. Even with my prodigious efforts, I only managed to last a couple of years. The axe fell in the fourth grade, when, for the first time in my life, I misspelled a word on a spelling test. I distinctly recall losing my breath at the sight of paper in front of me. "Fourty" was slashed through with the red ink that until then I had only associated with the smiley faces my teachers drew on error-free papers. That day, though, the ink looked like a gaping wound. I felt a little sick. I went home and reluctantly admitted my failure to my mother. She looked at me fondly and laughed. "It's healthy to be wrong from time to time," she told me. I didn't really register her meaning; I was too busy scoffing at her priorities.

As time went on, my mistakes added up: the fifth-grade geometry test I was woefully unprepared for; the lines I flubbed in the junior-year production of Our Town; the entirety of my eighth-grade wardrobe. My skin never got thicker. I suffered through each inconsequential indignity as if it were a failure of epic proportions. I filed each instance away for later, compulsive review.

By the time I arrived at college, I was an out-and-out nutcase. I had developed an impressive array of ways to avoid public failure. I limited conversation as much as possible, preferring print to communication through (carefully fact-checked) emails. I kept my mouth shut in class. I only pursued cute boys if they were too drunk to run away. (Provided I myself was too drunk to chicken out.) In short, I was a nervous, isolated wreck.

Then, somehow, I was hired as a travel writer, and I packed my bags and headed to China.

Even though I had taken a year of intensive Mandarin, I spent most of the twelve-hour plane ride frantically preparing to utter the Chinese words that would get me from the airport to my hotel. Neither my studies nor my preparation were of any help: I still managed to mangle the phrase in question. During the extra thirty minutes it took the cabbie to get me to the place I really wanted to go from the place I'd apparently said I'd wanted to go, I rehearsed what I would say to the concierge at the hotel. I got that wrong, too. Then I decided to track down a Diet Coke. Eventually it became clear that the Chinese market hadn't yet embraced the miracles of aspartame. Unfortunately, I didn't pick up on this until after I'd managed to thoroughly humiliate myself by trying to mime "diet" to a nearby shopkeeper.

But as I fell asleep that night, for the first time in my life, I didn't compulsively recount the failures in my head. Of course, this wasn't the result of an epiphany. I was just really jet-lagged.

In the weeks that followed, though, I was so often in the wrong, loudly and publicly, that I found myself remembering that fourth-grade spelling test. I'd come to think of myself as something of a language prodigy in the years since my spelling gaffe, and I'd spent hour upon hour memorizing languages, including Chinese. But, in the frantic bustle of the sounds of Chinese as it is actually spoken in China and not in a classroom, I realized that, just like in fourth grade, memorization would only take me so far. No matter how hard I'd studied, perfection was impossible.

And then I came to understand that the only way to never be wrong was to never try to do anything at all.

Which, given that I was in China on assignment, was not so much an option. At long last, I started to let go. My memory had allowed me to revel in the joys of language; now language was freeing me from the shackles of my memory.

By the time I graduated from college and moved to Italy, I was a different person. I stepped off the plane in Florence, having never studied Italian, fully aware that I was about to spend six months making a complete fool of myself. At first, of course, it was easy: I was too desperate for caffeine to worry about my linguistic deficiencies when ordering cappuccinos at the bus-station coffee bar, too frantic for food and drink to care that I didn't even know the Italian words for "food" or "drink." But as time went on, as I bumbled my way through the country, reacting to my faux pas with little more than a smile and a shrug, I discovered something extraordinary: there is pleasure in imperfection.

Also, it turns out that you're a hell of a lot more likeable if you don't have a giant fear-mongering stick up your ass. I honestly don't know how anyone put up with me for all those years.

The world is full of noble, profound fears: fear of death, fear of disease, fear of finding yourself involved in a reality TV series. But fear of failure is a cancerous, close-minded fear. It's just another way to say fear of trying. And trying is the very thing that keeps life interesting.

This December, I'm going to Hungary for the first time. I've been studying dutifully for the trip, spending my evenings with language CDs and online flashcard programs. It's a hard language, harder perhaps than any language I've attempted to gain conversational fluency in. I've spent hours learning to pronounce simple sets of words — and even so, I'm fairly sure that my accent has all the phonetic grace of a two-ton gorilla on a tricycle. And I've done my best to memorize basic phrases, but in the heat of the moment I know I'll do the same thing I do in my native language: put my foot firmly in my mouth.

But I don't care. Because I know that in language — and in life — there's far more fun to be had in failure. Finally, after all these years, I've learned to stop worrying and love the wrong. Though, I confess, I'm still working on the orange drink.

÷ ÷ ÷

Elizabeth Little is a writer and editor living in New York City. She has worked as a literary agent and as a writer and editor for the travel guide Let's Go: China, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times. Biting the Wax Tadpole is her first book. spacer
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