I’ve confessed to having fallen in love with a language before, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who gets this way.
Some of the faculty members I work with have started learning Tibetan together. Their teacher comes once a week for two hours and they sit in the office right next to mine, chanting the characters of the Tibetan alphabet and haltingly putting words together. Most of the people who attend this class work on Tibet, either as political activists and organizers or as scholars of Buddhism, but one of them is a professor who works on things like ritual and gender in Chinese religions – tangentially related perhaps, but not a specialty that would ever require her to read texts in Tibetan. Somebody asked her about this today: why are you doing this? What are you planning to get out of it? “What is your goal with this language?” That question is a direct quote, and I’m sure almost all of us who have ever attempted to learn a new language have encountered it before. What she said in response made me grin from ear to ear.
No, she admitted, she did not need this for her research. It might be fun, perhaps, to trot out some greetings if she ever gets to visit Tibetan-speaking parts of China on research trips, and it might come in handy in other small ways. But that wasn’t the point. “It just opens me up to a new culture – a whole new world,” she said. She grew up in Beijing, and is familiar with Tibetan culture and religion. But this is different, somehow. Learning this language, even just a little bit, has allowed her into a dimension of this culture that she was completely unaware of before. “Even just the way you make words, and write letters, it’s so different, and that difference means so much,” she said, and at this point she looked like she was going to float away on her own happiness.
I know exactly how she feels. As busy adults, there are so many things we need to do, so many things we need to learn and to achieve and to accomplish, so much so that it seems every single way we choose to spend our time must be justified by practicality and the potential benefits to our careers. But I’m learning Arabic only out of love, and only for me, really, and this professor is only learning Tibetan for herself. “I don’t know how to explain it, but when we are studying it’s like…I feel this joy coming into my heart,” she said, and she moved her hand from above her head down to her heart, as if this language was bestowing a blessing to her from above. “Just this joy, and almost, it’s almost like…God, or something” – and here she blushed and laughed, because her audience was all religion professors, and she waved her hand a little nervously as if to dismiss such a silly idea.
But I knew she meant it.