speak / by Anna Li

Today, it is still dark outside, but I can see the clouds turning orange through my window, and I can hear the tiny brass bell ringing underneath the wails of roosters. This means that it is five am on a Friday morning, because the bread salesman only comes up from Santa Fe at that time. Which means it is market day. Which means I am buying groceries today, which means I have to speak Kalahan to strangers, and I am dreading it.

Learning a new language is to be perpetually lost on the outside of an inside joke. A person here might tell a story in Kalahan so fast that it sounds like one long, breathy vowel and everyone in the room laughs, and all you can do is smile along with them. Or it is to be the center of a joke that you had no idea you were telling. My whole village is well aware of how I tried to say, “rat” (otot) and accidentally said, “I farted” (imotot), a story I guarantee will follow me for the duration of my internship.

The phrase “language barrier” could not be a more accurate depiction of learning a new language. It feels like a tangible barrier, a wall so solid and wide that I can tap a fist against it and make no marks. This new language, it’s a labyrinth or a house sectioned off into many rooms. Finding the right word is like looking for a key to a bolted door, and I have to sort through whole ring of similar words to unlock it—otot, utlu, ulag, utotick.

From this vantage point, I’ve also seen a small sliver of what language looks like from its outer shell. I’ve never realized how many gaps there are in the English language, no concise words for many things, like the feeling of when your leg falls asleep and gets that “pins and needles” sensation—this is na-alibugbug. Language shows what is important to its speakers. In Kalahan, there are multiple words to describe rice. Cooked rice is inapoy. Uncooked rice is bagah. Ugan is cooking rice.

The words are deep not only in meaning but also pronunciation. The words are long and filled with vowels as if you are yawning out words. You hold your ks and ngas at the back of the throat, so the language sounds like reverb echoing off the back of a cave. Every once in a while, there are dashes in the middle of words, like hi-gak (me), and the speaker pauses for a second the way there are rests in a music score. They speak the words so fast and so fluidly, broken only by the percussion-like pauses, it sometimes sounds like scatting.

At the same time, this kind of arrest in communication makes you realize the power beyond language. The powerlessness of being without the shield of words, and the power of sitting in the absence of them.  I have so little to offer these people, even in my communication. Yet their acceptance of me is unconditional. They welcome me on the most basic foundation of humanity, one that does not require words.

When I go to the market today, I will make my way through the booths until I find one selling pineapples, freshly uprooted. I will see the smiles of women sitting near the table, already leaning in to hear my heavily-accented Kalahan, but I will speak anyways. I will say, “Hakay pinya,” which means “one pineapple.” And yes, the women will laugh a little, and the vendor will smile and maybe ask me to repeat what I said, but I can have the courage to speak and to say it incorrectly and to be corrected and say it wrong again over and over again. But eventually, I will find the right key that unlocks these doors, and trade her ten pesos for one pineapple. And maybe some day, I’ll earn the words enough to make them my own.