Sunday, August 25, 2019

Language Learning and Childbirth: More in Common Than You'd Think

A few weeks ago, likely at 3:30 a.m. when instead of sleeping, I lay awake in bed obsessively constructing complex sentences in Spanish, I had a sudden realization. This realization then kept me up for the next few hours, or until minutes before my alarm rang. What dawned on me was that learning a foreign language and having a baby are essentially the same process, and neither are to be undertaken lightly or without serious consideration of the consequences. 

Fairly bold statement, eh? Well after completing my fourth language training and testing stint at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), I feel confident making it.

Before going further, it's only fair that I acknowledge my experience in both categories: 

             Language tests: Eight
             Children: Zero  

Now you may be wondering if I'm qualified to draw this conclusion. I understand. Just consider that I know folks with kids. I've had expectant sisters and friends and, being generally nosy, I've asked them heaps of questions about the whole pregnancy and childbirth thing. Sometimes even without squishing up my face and saying, "Whoa, better you than me!" But not often.

Let me lay out the line of reasoning that brings me to this controversial conclusion. My motivation is not so much to sway anyone from having kids - that's a personal decision - but perhaps to save a colleague from making the life-altering decision of tackling a new language at FSI. After all, it's bidding season and I've seen that twinkle in your eyes as you scan that Projected Vacancy List. But now I deplore you to direct your attention to that far right column, you know which one I mean, where the language requirement and training times are listed for each assignment.  See that 3/3 in Vietnamese?  Before you add Ho Chi Minh City to your bid list, swirl it around in the glass for a minute and appreciate the color.  Note the full-bodied complexity of a tonal language. Visualize the delicate nuances of deciphering -for example - written Georgian, an alphabet so lovely it should be a decorative wall border. Then, as the tannin hits your tongue, spit out that bitter liquid before it's too late. Please hear me out and consider the following before making any rash decisions.  This is what I've learned and how I see it all going down:

Phase One: The Romance of the Idea
With romantic images of a baby of your own - you begin to consider the idea.  Maybe you've always wanted one, or perhaps the idea developed over time, it doesn't matter, you find yourself looking at pregnant women and picturing that rosy glow in your own cheeks. You talk it over with your partner (or not - whichever) and come to a conclusion that yes, it'll be a tough for a while, but we'll get through it and it will all be worth it. You start thinking about names and maybe even mentally carve out a space for a nursery in your house or apartment. Bringing a new life into the world - what a noble pursuit!

With romantic images of speaking French/Japanese/Amharic with the locals, sharing a joke with the taxi driver, ordering confidently from the menu, or diving into the economic pages of the Sunday paper to untangle the complexity of the host-country market conditions - you consider a language-designated assignment.  You talk it over with your partner (or not - whichever) and come to a conclusion that yes, it'll be tough for a while, but you'll get through it and it will all be worth it in the end to live in that place. You cruise through a few YouTube videos in the language, chuckle at yourself for not picking out a single familiar word and imagine the time when you'll be discussing climate change among classmates. You think it'd be nice to have 6-10 months, heck even two whole years in some cases, dedicated to just studying a language. What a noble pursuit!

Phase Two: The Commitment
It's official - you/your partner are pregnant! You receive congratulations from friends and family and are relishing the honeymoon period of baby showers, setting up a nursery, trying out names for girls and boys, and buying maternity clothes.  It's all fun and new so far, and strangers stop you in the grocery store to wish you well with "your little miracle." Sure, there is some morning sickness, but you know what's causing it and suffer through it as part of this whole beautiful process. Your new doctor is great; there's good chemistry between you two and she's been so supportive and informative - you're feeling really confident about your choice. Life is good. 

It's official - you/your partner are back at FSI! It's fun to be back, seeing former colleagues in the hallways and catching up over over-priced lunches in the back room of the cafeteria (it's quieter there). With a fresh notebook and new textbook, you grab a picnic table in a shady corner of the campus and start conjugating simple verbs or learning the alphabet.  It's all fun and new at this time and with so many months ahead of you, you're excited about your nascent progress. Despite some morning headaches about making it to class on time or staying up late with homework, you suffer through it and proudly tell folks what you're undertaking. Your new teacher is great; there's really good chemistry between you and the your classmates and your learning consultant has been so supportive and informative - you're feeling really confident about your choice. Life is good.

Phase Three: In The Midst
Ooh, it's getting harder to get up the stairs these days, and damn - sometimes near impossible to pick up that dropped candy bar wrapper.  Your doctor has you on this exercise and diet regime that's supposed to help with some of your complaints, but really, you just need a solid night's sleep!  She just doesn't seem to understand that. Sometimes what you really want is just some sympathy, and puhleeze, no more stories from friends about how their pregnancies were such a breeze, especially their second/third/fourth one. Ha, as if! You're not dumb enough to go through THIS again. Finally, you secretly wish these last few months would be over and done with. What were we thinking?

Ooh, it's getting harder to summon up the energy to get to the language lab these days. And you know you're supposed to spend three hours in self-study each day, but when that early-release day comes around - just getting to the shuttle so you can crash by the pool for a mid-afternoon nap is all you can muster.  Your teacher has assigned a ton of homework, but you know that what would really help you learn this ridiculously complex, one-country language would just be a decent night's sleep.  He just doesn't understand that. Heck he already speaks the language, how could he? Oh, and puhleeze, you can't stomach another story about that friend-of-a-friend who listened to some great podcast each day and magically got a 4/4. Ha, as if! You secretly wish you had bid on an English-speaking post instead.  What were we thinking?

Phase Four: Bringing It Home
It's getting near the end. The ladies in your prenatal class have been heading to the hospital one by one, but you've still got a few weeks left.  Sometimes they bring their little bundles of joy back to the class to show off and gloat so the group can ooh and ahh. They give you the, "I just know you'll be fine!" rah-rah that only one who is on the other side of a horrible event such as childbirth can give. Don't they realize you still have to push this damn thing out, and frankly, you're kind of freaked out about it all? Bitches. You want to change places with that nice doctor's office receptionist; at least she can tie her own shoes. Why didn't we just adopt?

It's getting near the end. The other students in your class have been heading up to the language testing suite one by one, but you've still got a few weeks left.  Sometimes they come by the classroom after their exams to show off and gloat  share the good news about their passing scores. They give you the "I just know you'll do well, too!" rah-rah that only one who is on the other side of a horrible event like an End of Training Language Exam can give. Don't they realize that you still have to get through the "speaking at length" part (and they KNOW you have a phobia about that), plus what if you get a poem or a fairy tale to interpret?! You don't even understand those IN ENGLISH! Frankly, you're kind of freaked out about it all. Bitches. You see the cafeteria lady, all smiles and no worries and wonder if you could just have her job instead?

Phase Five: It's All Over
Life is beautiful.  You and your bundle of joy, love and life are home.  Yeah, you're tired - bone tired - but each midnight wake-up brings you closer to your little one.  Everything was worth it, but wait - what are you even talking about - you can't even remember the moans and groans of the whole pregnancy and birth thing.  Yeah, simple trips to the bathroom remind you, but showing to the world the most beautiful newborn your friends and family have ever seen is salve on the wound. You even find time to graciously stop by to see those supportive friends at your Prenatal Class - won't they be excited for you in their final weeks! Ah, they'll do great...

Life is beautiful.  Not only is the exam OVER, but you've waited the requisite 24-30 hours to receive your results. And what beautiful results they are, the culmination of your months of selfless toiling towards this goal. Everything was worth it: the endless hours each evening of homework, the two-inch stack of rubber-banded flashcards, the movies with the subtitles turned off (for the first half hour at least). You did it. You even find time to graciously stop by your classroom to lend helpful encouragement to that last classmate still studying away.  Won't she be excited to hear your results! Ah, she'll do great...  

Phase Six: One Year Later
The little one is crawling easily across the living room floor and knows - so confidently- how to say "No!" and "Uh-oh!"  Stretch marks have faded and developmental milestones are being checked off one by one and parenting, sure it's tiring, but it's also a daily joy. The thoughts of another little one, ya' know because YOU loved having siblings, starts crossing your mind. Wouldn't it be great if it were a boy/girl to make a set? You could even go back to that great Prenatal Class! Doesn't hurt to consider it, right...?

You're doing well at your post, and confidently greet your neighbor in the elevator in that language and can even handle that awkward chit-chat with the market cashier. You've tossed out your flashcards and linguistic milestones are being checked off one by one. Sure it can be tiring, and it's a relief to break into English when you can, but you're getting by. You've even had that interesting conversation with more than one taxi driver.  Bidding season starts in a few months and you've been eyeing the Projected Vacancies List.  Wow, lots of options! None using the language you've learned, but hey, wouldn't it be cool to live in Armenia/Cambodia/Bolivia?  Ah, time at FSI again to catch up with old colleagues and enjoy the campus. I hope that nice cafeteria lady is there still. Doesn't hurt to consider it, right...?