Well, the title says it all. In the world of foreign language learning, I am an asymptote. I study and study and study Spanish. I memorize lists of nouns, verbs, and conjugations. I spent four years learning basic grammar. I traveled to Spain and studied a bit more. Then I followed that with four years majoring in it, and now I translate from it and have even have some luck with publishing those translations. I won a grant to do a service-learning project in a country in Costa Rica in 2008 and practiced my Spanish while helping to build a bus stop in a remote rain forest community. (Sometimes I feel like all the cement I shoveled is the most useful thing I’ve done with my Spanish.)
But: I’m still an asymptote. In other words: in the world of math graphs that I barely remember from high school, an asymptote is “a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero as they tend to infinity” (Wikipedia, thanks for that). Perfect, native-sounding Spanish is the line. I am the curvy thing that will come really really close but will never touch the line. Damn it, I want to touch the line!
Accepting the fact that it’s incredibly rare, if not completely impossible, to be as good as a native speaker in a language–especially if you’re not living in a country where that language is spoken on a daily basis–is the first step in my grieving process here. But it’s really frustrating to admit that no matter how hard you work, you’ll never be perfect at something. I suppose that’s true in anything in life, but second language speakers feel it so acutely on a daily basis.
For many, and for me, it has helped to instill a sense of humility. I used to think I was good at Spanish, back when I was an undergrad. (I used to think I was good at a number of things, but well, I was delusional). And to be fair, I’m good enough at Spanish to read novels, write papers, and generally be understood when commenting on those novels and papers in an MA/PhD course, even if I’m not so eloquent. But, oh. Even when every native speaker you meet is nice and encouraging, you can feel it… With every gentle correction or reconsideration of syntax, I’m creeping closer to the line and to infinity, I suppose, but… then I’m like: ‘Right. I’m an asymptote. It’s not going to happen.’
To be clear, I think it’s worth the (sisyphean) struggle. In a strange way, I even kind of like it. It’s somehow beautiful to attempt something so impossible, with the full knowledge that I’ll never be good enough. There’s less pressure, in a way. I carry my Anglophone accent with me into every syllable I utter in my adopted tongues of Spanish, Slovenian, and Italian. I sound silly at times and even say things that make people laugh. But I learn from the laughter, and language learning helped me to learn how to laugh at myself.
Most importantly: being an asymptote means a constant commitment to never being satisfied. That can be a good thing: it makes you work harder, strive for more, and never take anything for granted. It makes you want to be better, and in my book it’s always a good thing to acknowledge faults and try to be a better human. Because language learning is so much more than charts and grammar exercises: fully learning a language means accepting differences, loving them even–on both a linguistic and cultural level. Language learning requires a high level of empathy, first toward others and other customs and traditions, and it means letting go, sometimes, of your own long-held beliefs about culture, right and wrong, etc. Sometimes it’s about being culturally relative; sometimes it’s about being culturally sensitive; and other times it’s about acknowledging that your own culture is flawed in certain ways the other culture is not. In other words, it makes you more aware, more perceptive, more accepting… and a better human than you were before language learning.
I could go on and on about the benefits of language learning (the people you meet! the places you can travel! the cognitive benefits, like staving off Alzheimer’s! the ability to gossip about people in front of them without them knowing what you’re saying!).
But in the end, despite the benefits, there’s still that nagging, terrible thing that is being an asymptote.
In my language learning journeys, I’ve been reduced to tears in front of large groups of people, turned bright red and stammered while giving talks, and felt the urge to have temper tantrums when the words just won’t come. But I’ve also had moments of pure bliss when I realize I’ve been speaking for hours in a foreign language without noticing or when I’ve breezed through a novel, and I’ve been happy as anything to have woken up from a dream that took place completely in Spanish or Slovenian. (Somehow, dreaming in a foreign language makes me feel more legitimate and like a real speaker of the language).
So, I’m an asymptote, through and through.
So, I’m joyfully frustrated. And frusteratedly joyful. And most importantly, I’m not giving up.