Note: A version of this article, edited for length and content, appears/will appear in the March issue of Njuspeipis, the student newspaper of Kauno Technologijos Universitetas (KTU).
Like many Americans, I am fluent in only one language: English. And all criticisms about and debate over foreign language education in the United States aside, the fact remains that my existence is contextualized in large part by monolingualism; English is not simply the language with which I live, it is the language in which I live. It is all I have ever known.
What I didn’t know, at least not until I came to Lithuania (my first trip outside of the U.S.), was how vital language was to my sense of security. Specifically, I didn’t realize how being able to read made me feel welcome in and part of my environment.
This realization struck me—and I know how silly this is going to sound—during my first trip to buy groceries, where walking into the store was like walking into an anxiety dream. Everything was at once familiar and alien: I recognized the letters on the signs that hung overhead, but I couldn’t understand the words they formed. Nor could I understand the packaging of the products. Every aisle was filled with a thousand questions that I hadn’t the capacity to ask. For the first time in my memory, written words communicated only confusion. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t read anything. I was truly, as Mick Jones sang, lost in the supermarket (though in a more literal, less existential way).
I was seized by the feeling of being incongruous with the environment, like a wooden splinter under a fingernail. I felt foreign—and it suddenly became very important to me that I conceal my foreignness. I started to walk around the store as if I knew where I was going, when, really, I was just wandering aimlessly with false confidence, trying to find the cereal, the milk, the bread, but somehow always ending up back at the (rather expansive) herring section. I avoided crowded aisles, where brushing against another shopper might produce a reflexive “Excuse me” that would expose the truth of my tenuous disguise. I picked up items and over-dramatically mimed deep thought and comprehension as I pretended to read their labels. I must have looked like such a fool. (And the less said about my disastrous performance in the checkout line, the better.)
I can laugh at the experience now, but at the time, I felt completely disoriented. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find what I wanted to buy because I couldn’t read Lithuanian—I could still see, after all. It was that the part of being able to read that contributed to my sense of independence was missing. I felt like I couldn’t be self-reliant, that at any moment I would find myself in a simple, utterly banal situation that I could not handle on my own. For me, someone who values independence above almost all else, the inability to read was both defeating and terrifying. I felt like a child, wide-eyed and groping through a world made for adults.
But beyond just realizing something about myself, my experience in the grocery store provided me a glimpse of what life must be like for people who are illiterate in their native language. It’s not a one-to-one relationship, of course; I am able to read at least one language, just not the one I was surrounded by in the store. Still, the mere taste of lost independence was enough to inspire panic. I now have an idea, albeit a small one, of what it is like to go through life surrounded by written communication and not be able to engage with it. In that sense, I imagine that being illiterate must be very lonely.
Of course, the best way to avoid such a situation in the future, for me anyway, is to learn Lithuanian. I’ll be here for five months, so I figure I can learn some basics, at least enough to shop without panicking. But while I’m in the process of learning, I should take stock of what is familiar, what I know. I know buildings and streets. I know the joy of movement and exercise. I know the thrill of music. I know the textures, tastes, and scents of food (though the appeal of herring will forever elude me). And I know people–flesh and blood, the sound of the human voice and the magic of eye contact. Reminding myself of these universal elements of life has helped me, and will continue to help me, feel like I am part of my new Lithuanian environment, like I belong. They help me feel like I am more than foreign.