Month: October 2014

The Genderqueer Language Learner is neither nor

This is a language blog. This is not a blog about being genderqueer. And yet I am genderqueer, and that impacts how I exist in the world and my experience of language study. So I’m writing about it.

I realize lots of readers may not be clear on what being genderqueer, or non-binary, means (some people use the two terms interchangeably; others don’t). Google is your friend! But here for starters, because I’m feeling nice, are a few links that resonate with me in some way:

Right now I study French and German. I’m a native English speaker; for me, it is not automatic to gender objects, and as I’ve grown to understand myself as a genderqueer person, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable being gendered myself.

Using gender-neutral phrasing in English is easy and has become standard in many situations. There are still lots of times where I can’t — being made to choose needlessly between Mr./Ms./Mrs. to register on a website, for example, and of course all the instances during daily life where I gender myself to all the people I’m not out to.

But comparatively, English makes this simple. With French and German, not only do I have to remember the gender of a table or a bus, I must assume a gender — one of two — as soon as I introduce myself. I end up saying, “Ich bin Amerikaner…in,” real fast and reluctant at the end: I’m saying this because I know you expect it, even though it hurts. Or “Je suis américaine,” and I bite down on the ending, my resentment at having to say it — or not say it (claiming to be “américain,” which firstly no one would believe, and secondly would just put me at the opposite pole of a system I don’t fit into) — inadvertently emphasizing it.

Every time I have to choose one path or another, one form over another — multiple times per conversation, per lesson — I wince. Sometimes I wonder if people notice my hesitation and assume I’m just not conversant enough to gender myself “correctly” and smoothly when I speak.

Finnish, which still feels very comfortable and cozy to me even though I’m no longer actively studying it, is a relief because there aren’t any gendered pronouns. Someone in my Finnish class once complained that this was frustrating; she hated not being able to instantly tell if someone was a man or a woman. That’s beautiful! That’s safe and freeing for me!

For those of you who are cisgender, you may not understand the simple, but profound, grief this causes me and others in my situation. My gender friend mentioned having a similar experience when learning French: that it just itched every time the teacher used the feminine ending towards them and required the same from them in return.

I’m used to saying, over and over, that I’m something — a woman — that I’m not. Like I said above, I’m not out as genderqueer to most people in my life (certainly not at work!). But at least fluency in English means sometimes I can spit out those terms quickly, trying not to think about them. Because getting gender right is such a focus of learning French and German — and highlighted as a specific challenge for native English speakers, which means it gets a lot of attention — I can’t do that. It’s not automatic. I have to hold my breath and brace myself pretty much every time. It’s a special, quiet, persistent kind of pain.

Like depression and mental illness generally, I think that genderqueerness is not something with much visibility in the language blogosphere. This too makes me feel like the odd one out. Where are the other genderqueer/nonbinary people out there learning a language that forces them to misgender themselves? Get in touch!

I remember seeing links a while ago discussing gender-neutral pronouns in German (I didn’t bookmark them, partly because my German wasn’t up to reading them at the time) but I don’t think I’ve seen anything about this in French. I’d love to see these discussions — in French, German, or English — if anyone can point me at them!

Vlogs for self-care and language study!

One thing that I’ve been enjoying recently, especially while recovering from a sharp depressive downturn, is watching vlogs — video blogs — in German.

(I’ve tried watching a few vlogs in French — actually mostly let’s plays, not quite the same thing — and I find them a lot harder to understand, even though my German is weaker. I’m not sure if the Germans making these videos just tend to speak more slowly or clearly than the French ones, or if it’s highlighting different strengths and weaknesses for me in these languages.)

I find the personal aspect comforting; at its most basic form, it’s just someone sitting casually in front of a camera to chat. I can’t speak to the popularity of the vlog in most languages, but certainly at least in German there seem to be vlogs on many topics and in varying episode lengths, anywhere from 2 or 3 minutes long to upwards of 30 minutes. Maybe your target language has some too?

If, like me, you’re interested in vlogs as a combination of language study with native materials and self-care/self-soothing, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: what sorts of topics might be upsetting or hit you in a vulnerable place? Are there any topics that might especially delight or inspire you?

For example, if finances are stressful, you might want to avoid haul videos, where people show off, and discuss, recent mass purchases they’ve made. Mostly I watch food ones (and obviously if you have triggers around food/eating or are dealing with an eating disorder, please watch with care, if you do at all). I’ve seen people lovingly discuss the huge bags of vegetables they just bought from Lidl, and enthuse about how much they love sweet potatoes or what kind of soup they’re going to cook that week. That kind of simple positivity feels good. And let’s face it, Lidl vegetables are cheap — believe me, I have a lot of thoughts about corporate agriculture and supermarket chains and the like, but at least watching a Lidl haul video isn’t going to enrage me like vlogs where people extol the virtues of 500€ blenders do.

A bonus is that, when I’m depressed, I tend way more towards the “not eating enough/at all” maladaptive style of coping, rather than “eating a lot.” Sometimes watching these vlogs stimulates my interest in eating or cooking; they remind me that food can be good and tasty and really, something I should pay attention to.

Needless to say, food vocabulary is very useful. If you like haul videos about clothes, well, that vocabulary is useful too! I’ve also heard that unboxing videos for iPhones and the like are very popular, if that’s more your bag. Vloggers may also do episodes showing them as they go through their day (either their daily routine or perhaps if they’re traveling) — can you find a vlog about a place you’d particularly like to visit, perhaps?

Try doing a search on YouTube for “vlog” plus the name of a popular chain store in a country with your target language, if you’re looking for haul videos, or maybe just “vlog” plus the name of a city or country, or a different topic-related phrase in your target language. You might be surprised at what turns up!

Finding a vlogger you like to watch is helpful in the same way that watching a TV series, as opposed to a bunch of different individual movies, is helpful: you start to build an understanding of that person’s particular vocabulary, accent, and way of speaking, which then can bolster your comprehension in general. If the vlogger also has an Instagram (on which they comment) or a blog or is on Twitter, so you can also take all this in via the written word, even better! And of course, like any social media phenomenon these days, vloggers love to namedrop each other: once you locate one vlog that you like, check out who they follow or link to. They might even do a vlog (by the way, that word is now sounding very strange in my head) episode about their own favorite vloggers!

The downside is that subtitles, at least in my experience, are nonexistent (there’s that automatic captioning you can get on YouTube but it’s dreadful). So, depending on your level, vlogs may be too frustrating. I’ll be honest and say there’s still an awful lot I don’t understand when I watch vlogs (one of my favorite vloggers especially speaks so fast), but I do think that with every one, I understand a little more! And as is so often true with depression, sometimes that tiny little triumph means quite a lot to me — hey, even if I’m stuck on the couch because I’m too anxious or depressed to do anything, look, I just watched some vlogs on my phone and I picked up a few new phrases and now I want to eat something for dinner…

Are there vlogs in your target languages? Does it sound like something you might be interested in watching? Perhaps you want to do a vlog yourself! (I admit I’ve thought about it before, but the obvious reduction in pseudonymity concerns me…)

On fear, and the uselessness of pain

Learning a language scares me. Coming up with a study plan, plonking down money for classes or tutors or textbooks or native-language materials scares me. It takes a lot of energy to talk myself out of, well, talking myself out of things. How dare I try things that aren’t going to work?

Fear holds people back a lot in general, but obviously for the non-neurotypical this might play even more of a role. I have anxiety and depression: I spend a lot of time being afraid (and then feeling stupid or guilty for feeling that way).

This year I’ve almost burned myself up trying to get the health care that I need (navigating labyrinthine and incompetent bureaucracy, getting doctors to take me seriously, enduring some pretty awful side effects while being told to wait and see, etc.) and working through some interpersonal stuff (… I’m pretty bitter and cynical right now). 2014 so far I think has actually been the worst year of my life (after the years immediately preceding have held that title!). And for all my efforts to try to make my life suck less*, well, results haven’t exactly persuaded me that trying will make any difference worth the expenditure of energy, or worth the heartbreak when things (inevitably) don’t work out.**

Against this background, sometimes trying to learn a language feels like a sign of faith in myself that just isn’t warranted. What if I put in all this time and energy and it’s still just too much for me and I’m just not good enough? What if I try to turn lemons into lemonade via language learning and I just fail again? How hopeless and foolish and naive would I feel then?!

I started this blog to talk about how I do manage to keep studying and learning sometimes, and to put a narrative of language-learning out there that I felt was largely missing online. But I can’t always be (relatively) upbeat.

Sometimes this is what it looks like, inside my brain, and sometimes there is no lesson to be learned or any cheerful, brave takeaway. Sometimes — a lot of the time! — I don’t feel like any of this is worth it, or that anything could be worth having to deal with how awful it is inside my head. Sometimes there isn’t any moral or any reason. It just is. Not acknowledging this feels suffocating.

This post won’t give you any useful tips or inspiration, but I had to say it. I know there are some of you who feel this way and maybe sometimes you feel like you can’t say it either. You can say it here, if you want.

Sometimes shit just sucks.

(Or, to say it more poetically: “Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”)

* Let me tell you all about my yoga and meditation habits, my occasional flirtations with Couch to 5K, my efforts to get enough sleep and eat nice things and get out and do things, my therapy appointments and writing 750 Words, etc. etc.!

** I know all about locus of control and learned helplessness and how this relates to depression, so please don’t waste your breath on any lectures. Or toothless platitudes, references to religion, etc.