Going Undercover: Donning The Disguise Of Language
Our ability to learn a second language is a magnificent phenomenon unique to humanity. It’s a disguise, in a way, a cloak that allows you to be part of something you’d otherwise never see.
ATTENTION, AGENT NIGHTSHADE: DESTROY THIS NOTE AFTER READING
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate a group of people to learn more about how they see the world, gain access to incredible first-hand stories, make lasting friendships, and seamlessly immerse yourself into a vibrant, stimulating atmosphere.
In short, Agent Nightshade, your mission is to learn another language.
Our ability to learn a second language is a magnificent phenomenon unique to humanity. It’s a disguise, in a way, a cloak that allows you to be part of something you’d otherwise never see. It’s a feat almost as unlikely as a brown bear passing itself off as a whippoorwill, learning to warble and trill, and finding out what exactly those birds were up to all day.
Not unlike that bear in disguise, Agent Nightshade, when you learn another language and use it to communicate with native speakers, you’ll be able to step into what is almost a different plane of reality. You’ll cross into a world where people have a range of cultural references that are new to you. There are often nuanced differences in senses of humor, forms of politeness, and approaches to day-to-day life.
"The ability to learn a second language is a disguise, in a way, a cloak that allows you to be part of something you’d otherwise never see."
If you wait for other people to translate conversations as they happen, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve seen many a spy fall by the wayside, waiting for someone to explain the breathtaking fifteen-minute story that had everyone else’s attention around a dinner table. However, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and learn to speak and understand a bit yourself, you’ll be donning the right costume to allow events and conversations to continue seamlessly, freeing the people around you up to express themselves with ease. Just how does all this work, you ask, Agent Nightshade? Allow me to give some examples.
Operation: Checkout line
I can still remember, back in my early linguistic spying days, the first time I understood a joke in German. I was waiting in line at an art store, and the cashier was wrapping up dozens of pen tips and inkwells for the man in line before me. It took quite a while, and eventually she smiled at me sheepishly, ready to ring up my single tube of alizarin crimson. She rolled her eyes and said, “Stunden später…” (“Hours later…”). And just like that, I was in! It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the words to say that no, thank you, I didn’t need a bag. The fact of it was, I wasn’t a stranger standing outside in the cold anymore. I had touched down in the world surrounding me: I had understood a mildly humorous comment! Needless to say, I left the store feeling giddy that day. The dawn of my career in espionage.
Operation: Blue Eyes
So you see, you don’t even need to be able to speak that much to conduct entry-level spy operations. Another example took place during the month I spent in Finland for an artist’s residency. The brevity of my stay – in concert with the insane complexity of the Finnish language – prevented me from learning to speak very much. I did, however, learn a few short phrases, including “please,” “thank you,” the numbers one through ten, as well as the useful phrase, “Sinulla on kauniit siniset silmät” (“You have such beautiful blue eyes”). Despite the fact that I couldn’t carry on a conversation, I practiced this phrase till I had it down pat and could say it quite loudly and clearly. Its effect was astonishing: People would stop in their tracks, as if I had suddenly stepped out from a mirror and into the room. And luckily, the relative homogeneity of the inhabitants of Finland meant that I could make this declaration to virtually everyone I met.
"You don’t even need to be able to speak that much to conduct entry-level spy operations."
As your skills increase, Agent Nightshade, you will be able to conduct more serious operations. Today’s last tale from my trove of spy stories is of a more involved and complex mission. It entails venturing into the realm of interaction, accepting another person’s generosity, and becoming aware of differences in how we grew up.
My friend Rosmarie from the States once came to visit me in Berlin, Germany, and we planned a trip to the Czech Republic together. Though there are frequent, inexpensive buses to Prague, teaming up together made us feel adventurous. We decided to hitchhike.
We set out early one fine summer morning, and luck was on our side. After half an hour we got a ride with Matthias, a man from southern Germany who was driving due south to Dresden. He was a very cheerful fellow who didn’t speak more than five or six words of English, and so I translated to Rosmarie as we cruised along Germany’s immaculate highways. Our conversation drifted from impressions of Berlin (he thought it ugly and pagan) to a recipe for his favorite food (a type of savory cake created by setting layer upon layer of crepes, quark, spinach, and salmon).
Eventually we got into a very interesting discussion after I told him I had been learning a song by the Tiger Lillies based on a cautionary tale from Struwwelpeter, a German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman. Matthias mentioned offhand that he’d read the book as a very young child. Rosmarie and I were surprised to hear that because the book contains some moderately disturbing events, what with children getting their thumbs snipped off, catching on fire, and starving to death, to mention a few. Matthias jovially told us that many German children are exposed to these stories at a very young age, and that we had stumbled onto a very different cultural attitude toward death and sheltering the young. On that light note, he announced we had arrived in Dresden and he wanted to invite us to his favorite café. One crumbly Bienenstich later, we parted ways.
Agent Nightshade, the hour is growing late, and though I have many more thrilling tales of linguistic espionage to tell, I think you should be on your way. We can continue our talks when you’ve completed a few missions of your own.
Good luck and Godspeed,