|A dreamy landscape in Varenna, on Lake Como|
Like our dreams at night, second language acquisition often doesn't make any sense. It can seem unpredictable and obscure, delivering cryptic messages in the form of symbols that take time to decipher. Certain aspects of the new language and its use may seem concrete, real, and tangible. On the other hand, deeper/more subtle components of language (e.g., idiomatic expressions, local jargon, culturally-driven language behaviors, including pragmatic aspects) may seem absurd or simply out of reach. As in dreams, we sometimes trudge through our second language world, sometimes fly, and sometimes want to run away screaming.
People often say that you know that you have truly acquired a language when you dream in that language. I have to say, since I have been in Italy, I have dreamed many times in Italian; however, in most of these dreams I am searching for words, trying to assemble grammatically correct sentences, and conjugating verbs. Thus, my dream-Italian is more or less just as effortful (hopefully getting better) as my real-life-Italian. I awake from these dreams ready to jump out of bed and grab the bilingual dictionary or visit my favorite Italian verb conjugator website. Then my dream blurs into reality: another day of cryptic messages surrounded by beautiful moments of clarity.
Of course, there's another significance to the word, 'dream'; that is, as a wish or goal that we hope to achieve. Language, again, can apply to this sense of dream in that people in so many situations long to acquire a new language. In fact, they may be desperate to do so in order to improve their quality of life.
I have often felt privileged to have English as my native language, when so many people around the world dream of learning it as an additional language. The other side of the native English speaker coin is carrying the weight of the bad reputation that the U.S. has for being linguaphobes (my term). I'll always remember the disappointment, combined with a serious dose of realism, that I felt when an Italian teacher told me, "It's not that you speak Italian well. It's that you are an American who actually speaks some Italian… this is what impresses Italians". With so many people around the world speaking English as a second language, it's easy for people who are native speakers to take the easy road and remain monolingual. However, I can guarantee that those who do realize the dream of becoming bilingual will possess an invaluable gift that will forever enrich their life.
Let's play a little language game. Below are a few quotes about dreams. Read the quote, then read it again, substituting the word, language/s for the word dream/s.
2. "A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work" (Colin Powell).
3. "There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure (Paulo Coelho).
It worked, right? In so many senses, bilingualism is a dream: something to muddle through and interpret, something to reach for, and something to hang onto. Yes! Hold onto your dreams… and your languages!