I grew up speaking English and, once I started school, Spanish. I thought I knew what bilingualism was. I later studied Latin and German and thought that I was quite the polyglot. It wasn't until I served a mission in Brazil and found myself entirely surrounded by Portuguese that I began to understand what fluency really is.
I was in Curitibanos, a city of about 35,000 people in central Santa Catarina. My companion was Brazilian and had an accent that was a crazy mixture of Rio (which is a sufficiently crazy accent on its own), Paraíba, and Santa Catarina. Most of the other people I'd met had been born and grown up in Curitibanos and had been there their whole lives. Some few were from other parts of Brazil. I'd learned to speak and understand reasonably well in Florianópolis, where the accent was much more mild. Curitibanos, being a small and fairly isolated community, had an accent that completely bewildered me.
As time went by, I felt increasingly alone. It took some time to figure out exactly what was causing my isolation. It wasn't the people; Brazilians, as a rule, are open and friendly. My companion at the time is a good man. The people I saw as I walked around the city and as I taught the gospel were kind and genuine. And it wasn't that I wasn't trying, either.
I think I blamed it on the structure of the mission for some time. I thought that the missionary rules were preventing me from forming real friendships. Then, I thought it had less to do with the rules generally and more to do with our busy schedules; we never had enough time with any one person (companions excluded) to connect.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion – and I think this one is actually correct – that connection requires language. There are, of course, transcendent exceptions to this rule. But most connection requires people to really understand each other through some sort of language. It requires people to be able to speak and understand naturally enough that they can focus on the meaning instead of the words. I was good at Portuguese, but I wasn't good enough to really connect with people. I could get basic ideas across but struggled with nuance. I couldn't play or paint with the language. There were moments of brilliance, of course, that I believe were blessings from God. But without divine intervention, I was adrift in a sea of people and unable to drink.
We sometimes fail to see that language barriers exist not just between languages but between dialects and even between registers. For those unfamiliar with the term and who are disinclined to follow the link, registers are like dialects but most of us speak several. We speak in one register when spending casual time with our friends and another when writing formally. We use different words, inflections, idioms, and cultural references in different registers.
Usually, fluent speakers of a language can understand each other, even if they're unfamiliar with the register being used. In some cases, however, it can be difficult. I observe this frequently with people who find themselves thrust into a world of Standard Written English (SWE). It's clearly unnatural for some people to speak in a formal register, just as it's clear when a man is wearing a suit for the first time. And a formal register tends to use language that can be difficult for people to understand.
I struggle with this because, for all practical purposes, SWE is my native language. I grew up in a household with a large, frequently-used dictionary. We used the word "whom" correctly. We paid attention to detail. And we read a lot. As a result, I know a lot of words. I find that the words that come most readily to my mind are often not words that others find easy to understand. In fact, I find that I use larger and more obscure words when I'm sleep-deprived; most likely, because those words are most natural for me.
I remember being in a Sunday School class (in my denomination, there are Sunday School classes for all ages) one day while I was at BYU. I described temples as beautiful but not ostentatious. One of my fellow classmates responded by saying, more or less, "Ostentatious? I feel smarter just for being here!" The subtext was clear: "No one really uses that word, but I've heard it before. And I feel smart because we're using big words and I got this one." I remember feeling awkward because I thought that ostentatious was a perfectly ordinary word and that it ought to belong in the vocabulary of a college student.
Another time, I was chatting with my roommates and used the word "onerous". I didn't think it was a particularly obscure word, but it seems that it was, as my roommate asked me about it. It was eerily similar to this conversation from I, Robot. In moments like these, I realize that the people around me often don't speak my native language. As a result, I return to the isolation I felt in Curitibanos.
Now that I think about it, it makes sense that I'd experience the same sort of isolation. For one thing, some words have more panache than others and having to communicate without them is emotionally dissatisfying in the same way that my underdeveloped Portuguese lexicon caused dissatisfaction in Brazil. Much more importantly, obscure words often express my intention much more precisely than do better-known words. In many cases, the use of simple language strips my ability to express important nuances. It leaves me feeling full of light but unable to share it for lack of an appropriate medium – just the way I felt in Brazil.
My situation, of course, is not exactly analogous to the one I experienced while immersed in Portuguese. In fact, I think it's more difficult. Learning Portuguese meant that I was acquiring new words; speaking in an informal register means filtering out words. But it isn't clear which words to filter and which words to keep – and guesswork is very tiring for me. What's more, that tiring guesswork is duplicated for all of the synonyms that come to mind as I search.
Another difference between my immersion in Portuguese and my attempts to converse with people in English is that people react very differently. When I was in Brazil, people knew that I wouldn't be able to speak fluently all of the time. In contrast, using formal or complicated language with native English speakers can lead them to feel shame. This shame isn't something I'm imposing on them, but they feel it as an indirect response to my actions. So instead of being seen as an understandable failure to communicate effectively, as it was in Brazil, my language barrier in English is seen as a moral failure.
Of course, I believe in speaking to people in their own language. I'll continue to make a reasonable effort to speak intelligibly. But I no longer believe that being easily understood is a moral imperative. In other words, I'm done trying to Up Goer Five everything.