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Tongue-tied: The challenges of learning a new language

On being lost for words.

My mouth is a foreign country. My lips and tongue are exchange students stumbling over words and up the steps of a train station, blinking in the daylight of another continent. I am attempting to learn phrases in a new language, and my mouth makes shapes I do not recognise.

I search the internet for someone who can pronounce the words I have written down in Gujarati, the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi, so I can surprise my partner’s Indian grandparents when I meet them.

It is a language I have no reference for, and I cannot place phonetically. I don’t even know the vowel sounds. A very nice man on YouTube asks, “Tame jami lidhu?” Did you eat your lunch? My mouth gapes, my tongue is exposed and vulnerable. Nothing sounds right, and the effect is as disorienting as being in a new house in a power cut.

The grandparents are 103 years old, and they smile at me as I softly ask, “Kem cho?” How are you? How they are is not unlike a pair of Galapagos tortoises, whose eyes are bright beads and whose language is time passing. When they speak, I feel their words on my tongue, but I cannot reach them. We all smile broadly, and search one another’s faces for the language we share, which is expression, which is shyness. I watch my partner crouch beside his grandmother and ask in Gujarati if she has eaten lunch. This much I recognise.

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In the afternoons, I collect a small human from kura kaupapa, and I listen to her lead the karakia with shy certainty. She tumbles from the classroom in a blur of duality, jumping from English to te reo Māori like a rabbit alight in a meadow. I carry her bag and ask if she has eaten her lunch, and in my head I hear the refrain in another tongue.

At home, she swings her legs on a chair and repeats for me “tīhi me aporo”, cocking her head as I recite it back to her. Cheese with apples is the afternoon tea I make for her, “cheese with apples” the words I say in te reo under my breath as I wipe the kitchen bench. I listen to the way she says “ngeru” as she pats her cat. I feel useless and small – ashamed of the strain my memory is under, embarrassed that the language of my home is a stranger.

We stop at the dairy and pretend to paint our faces with the rainbow petals of the putiputi (flowers) for sale out the front. On the way home, she tries to trick me with made-up words she says are Māori, and she gets away with it because my mouth is a foreign country, colonised by a brain that has no flexibility.

But there is memory hidden somewhere, because I begin to count in Māori when I perform breathing exercises at night, and face insomnia. The numbers come back to me like a secret message written in milk on paper, and keep me company in the dark hours.

Waiata I learned in school come back to me, too, and they form the beginning of the dictionary I keep in my head. I list the words I know, and their meanings. I sing under my breath, and I feel something breathing inside me.

A week later, at a writers’ festival, I force myself to say some of my introduction in Māori, although my hands shake. It is only three short phrases, but a light flickers on inside. My mouth is a foreign country, but I begin to recognise the street signs.

Michelle Langstone tweets @mifflangstone.

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great reads.