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On pretending to not listen to a language one is learning

I've noticed a tendency when learning another language to "not-listen." This is a defensive act.

When learning a language, one must listen. But listening studiously is an intensive activity — and one that may become obvious. You may become suddenly involved in a conversation that you only wanted to hear — one that you were not prepared to enter.

"Do you understand this?" — the eternal question of the bilingual....

While it's not as obvious as staring, listening can be apparent. You don't notice this until it's uncomfortable. And when people notice that you're listening and speak to you as if you understand, it can be awkward. When you have to explain to too many people that you don't speak the language very well, it becomes tedious.

When you're trying to learn a language, you have to listen to conversations that do not concern you. At a café, on the street — anywhere. In the grocery store, the customer in front of you may be talking with the clerk and laugh... they look at you — you were listening.... What do you do? Smile, and say nothing, maybe. Maybe they speak to you. Now you're in it....

It's not much... it's a small thing... but it's persistent, a condition to which you must adapt.

Sometimes I have to explain that I don't speak Dutch very well. That takes time, and it changes the conversation — and that change usually involves a transition to the English language,* which can be dispiriting.

And you learn to not-listen, to feign unawareness.

— Adapted from a page I wrote in July of 2004 in Nijmegen, The Netherlands


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*In Holland, conversation slips into English with ease and speed. The Dutch have little appreciation for the English-speaker's attempt. Sometimes you have to refuse to speak English....

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