I’ll never forget when the Korean boy I shared a desk with in Year 8 maths turned up brandishing a dictionary and exclaiming that he’d learnt 5000 English words. I congratulated him, naturally, but I was startled.
Did I know 5000 words?
Turns out the average vocab of a 13-year-old in my generation was 10,000 words. An adult apparently knows roughly 25,000+ words. This kid had been around the island for a little less than a year and he was catching up. No doubt he’d soon overtake because he was swooping up words left, right and center. Somehow.
I didn’t believe he was just working through the dictionary. He was brandishing that for dramatic effect. I knew he was lapping up the English language in literary form, that’s how he knew the spellings to track words down.
English follows no rules, you see.
It’s a wayward language that steals fancy sounding words from France or Italy, with little care for standard pluralisation and shoves vowels in the most uncomfortable of places.
That night while reading, rather than gliding over words I didn’t know, I noted them down. It most likely set me up for my path into linguistics, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t an uphill battle.
Learning a new language while trying to scrape together a life abroad is one of the hardest things adults can face.
When I settled in Brazil, it seemed unreasonable to squish all the new Portuguese words I needed into my brain. They just wouldn’t stick.
I wanted to explain:
- I was exhausted, drained, fatigued, but all I could manage was tired.
- I’m not sad, I’m discouraged.
- I’m not angry, I’m miffed.
A vast chunk of my foreigner life was trying to communicate my experience in a colorful way that captured the essence of the battle. Rallying sympathy comes from connection. It took 2 years to muster the kind of connection I was craving.
Sadly, the slow process of second language acquisition lends itself to a lonely, mostly muted struggle for many immigrants.
When you are faced with an immigrant who says that their situation is hard, their situation is probably an unyielding torrent of challenges.
They’re barely coping.
Because of the pandemic, for a few years humans have been grounded. But now, with Ukraine invaded, Afghanistan abandoned, millions of people pouring into poverty from the financial crisis, you may about to be surrounded by a flood of foreign accents. And where they may only yield a few hundred words in your mother tongue, know there is a complex story consuming their bandwidth, but they have yet to acquire the vocabulary or stability to relay it to you.