Life as an Insect Inside a Glass Jar: Language Learning Through Immersion

Life as an Insect Inside a Glass Jar: 
Language Learning Through Immersion
(Sic Semper, Malinowski and the Tropical Beach…)

What does it feel like to live as an insect inside a glass jar? The praying mantis was removed from its environment suddenly, and plopped into a clean, bright glass vessel, along with other things that resembled its original home– a few sticks, pebbles, and an ant to nibble on. I think people who struggle to learn a language through immersion in a very different culture know best what it might feel like to be the praying mantis you captured when you were a child, or to become that child again. At least that is how I feel here in Tanzania as I struggle with learning Kiswahili. I look out from the jar with a few sort-of-familiar objects at all those people looking in, and sometimes, the person whom I can most relate to is a two-year old.

Why is language learning through cultural immersion like being the insect inside that jar? When learning a language in a new culture, everyone sees each other clearly. We see each other’s movements, colors and habits. We share the same time zone and surrounding social environment. The insect and the people even share the same material items, placed in the jar, and the jar itself shares the same physical and social environment. But clarity of understanding ends abruptly by seeing only. The insect remains behind a thick wall of glass, and still, the two-year old is seldom understood if he babbles or cries.

“Imagine yourself as an insect, suddenly plopped down into a clear, bright jar in another society.”

Like any discipline, anthropologists read their ‘founding fathers.’ One of whom is Bronislaw Malinowski, the Austrian student who found himself unable to return to Austria from British New Guinea when World War I broke out. So he took the opportunity of his internment abroad to study systems of exchange. Malinowski, who happens to be my “intellectual great-grandfather,” romanticized the story as, “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach…” But I ask, imagine yourself as an insect, suddenly plopped down into a clear, bright jar in another society. Sorry Bronislaw, language school is not a romantic tropical beach!

Perhaps out of pride or embarrassment, most ethnographers never share the process of language learning (except Nigel Barley!). A few share the awkwardness of learning a new culture, but only as if it were improbably divorced from language (is that even possible?!). Still, many anthropologists pursuing advanced degrees never learned a new language– either because they chose a thesis in which learning a new language was not necessary, or because they relied on translators. In the end, many have verified degrees and published papers, while having successfully skipped past the difficult part– notably, complete language immersion by living with local families. They still know only one language. Sorry, living in a hostel, and the sinking feeling of returning to the hotel room at night, paid for by your liberal grant fund, does not count as cultural immersion with language-in-use.

“And the feeling of smiling back, completely unable to express myself is like a smothering pillow or an asthma attack that no one can hear.”

During full cultural and language immersion, a depression will ebb and flow with the patterns of daily life in your new culture. Imagine yourself within the confines of that bright, clean jar, in which you can see the wonders of your new world. Colors are amplified by light refractions through the jar, with rays of bright sunshine energizing you and dramatic sky darkenings followed by sheets of water pouring from the skies. Sounds are bright, and clear, but echoed and distorted, sometimes abnormally loud, and other times muffled and inaudible as sounds blend together.

Some days, a sense of adventure leaps from your breast with opportunities to practice new words or even idioms while you journey to an unknown destination for hours by car, or bounce on the back of a motorcycle, or balance a toddler and a sack of coal on your lap in an overburdened bus. Other days, tiredness is so heavy, it’s hard to smile, eat, move, or function at all, much to the concern of your hosts in possession of the jar. Is the insect okay? Should we take this visitor to a hospital? I will never forget the confused smiles, as eyes try to pierce the glass in understanding. Who is this new person? Why do they have these strange habits? And the feeling of smiling back, completely unable to express myself is like a smothering pillow or an asthma attack that no one can hear.

But experiencing daily life in your new environment, sharing the same sensory experiences as those outside of your jar, without being able to understand what is happening is only one divide fortifying the clean, glass wall of the jar. You bounce along muddy or dusty roads to visit So-and-So, without having a clue what’s going on. The people outside of the jar either don’t know you don’t know, or the thought of your confusion doesn’t even enter their mind.

“The crowning experience of living inside of a jar is the feeling of living inside of yourself– of not being understood. It’s a feeling best described as something between an invisible prison cell and that asthma attack, which I assume feels the same as being suffocated by a pillow.”

However, the crowning experience of living inside of a jar is the feeling of living inside of yourself– of not being understood. It’s a feeling best described as something between an invisible prison cell and that asthma attack, which I assume feels the same as being suffocated by a pillow. To add to the confusion, there are genuine outpourings and offerings and generosity. Especially offerings of care and support that you know you can never repay, hospitality that has made you cry in gratitude. But the inability to express your thoughts, feelings, struggles, and confusions remains. The confused looks of genuine concern (at best) and the gaping, open-mouthed stares and laughter (at worst) remain. Your mind and body have a reply, but it stops behind the back of the throat.

Today, I don’t know what we’re doing. Sometimes I find out about things at a moment’s notice. Or, we’re leaving right now. But I wait two hours. Most of the time someone addresses me, I must reply with, “What? You are saying? Say again? Slowly, please. I don’t understand.” Or, at worst, a wave of the white flag– a completely blank stare with my greasy hair and eyeglasses standing on end and slipping down my sweaty nose, looking like I want to cry. I trust my new relatives in my new country, because Baba and Mama lived here, they were married here. My pitiful 6 months pales in comparison to years. So I’m never scared. I trust and love these people who care for me, completely. But the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the glass jar is too much some days.

“The glass of my jar is composed of language and culture…but language is an intimacy I don’t think is well understood.”

I grip the sides of the glass jar, sometimes I knock on it. Sometimes I want to put up my fists and spit, when someone points, “Hey look, an alien visitor!” but the spit lands on the inside of the glass, only to block my view and remind me of my place and my exotic nature. Other times I look out and admire the brilliant, frightening and loving beauty. But the very real, clear and strong border that separates me from my new environment is culture and language, not the bureaucratic demands of passports, degrees, or even language classes. The glass of my jar is composed of language and culture.

At the university where I obtained my degree, there was only one (though very thorough!) linguistics class, seemingly taught as a putative obligation to the 4 field discipline I sometimes refer to as anthro-apology. But language is an intimacy, an intimacy I don’t think is well understood. Sometimes, it seems like linguistics is the red-headed step child of our discipline.

“What will happen as cultures, societies, and languages continue their paths towards convergence? When I looked down at the little boy on the floor, maybe because it’s easy to love a baby, I grabbed my shirt and silently wept.”

Here in Tanzania, I’m blessed beyond my ability to give thanks to be living with a family with a two year old. He’s a latecomer to the family, so I imagine he’ll be wise beyond his years and well socialized with his elders and leaders in education and international relations. But his father told me one night, in the language I’m learning, that one day, he will face a linguistic crisis hinged upon two languages– the language of my culture (English) and the language of his culture, which I’m struggling to learn (Kiswahili). What will happen as cultures, societies, and languages continue their paths towards convergence? When I looked down at the little boy on the floor, maybe because it’s easy to love a baby, I grabbed my shirt and silently wept.

“He calls me dada, or sister. On those days, it feels like the two-year-old understands me better than any of the adults.”

Lately, the little boy’s favorite word is dudu, which is the root word for insect, in Kiswahili. We might be anywhere, though often at home, and he seems to spot a bug– scurrying under a couch or flitting behind a curtain. Dudu! He exclaims suddenly. Dudu…I found a dudu! Sometimes, the insect is too small for anyone to see, or we’re not sure if he actually saw a dudu. Or perhaps the dudu is invisible to us, but very real to him, like the walls of my glass jar. Me feeling like an insect in my glass jar, him looking for dudu. Even on the days I feel most isolated inside of my jar, he has never called me dudu. He calls me dada, or sister. On those days, it feels like the two-year-old understands me better than any of the adults. Not solely because we’re both learning a language. We’re practicing social context together, we’re practicing language-in-use together. And we’re probably confused together and smile together. But he has the advantage that, as a two-year old, this is expected. For myself, as a 30-something-year old, I find it somehow painful to return to a child-like state.

Maybe those moments where he spots a dudu that no one can see, it’s just me he sees. Over time, he’ll grow up and become mature. He will learn both Kiswahili and English. And he won’t see those kinds of dudu like me anymore. He’ll be immersed in his language and culture, and the glass jar will become invisible. And maybe, if I’m still in Tanzania, I hope to have left the glass jar created by the language barrier, the boundary having disappeared for both of us. When he faces both languages, I hope he will confide in me, in either language. Until then, at least there’s a two-year old who sometimes sees the dudu in the glass jar.

(Thus Always, Malinowski and the Insect in the Glass Jar…)

See also, by Tony Waters:

Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

This post was edited while we danced to “Vunja Mifupa” by Samba Mapangala.