One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was study abroad in Beijing for four months, with no accommodations for most of the semester. I’d enrolled into the full immersion track, which meant five straight days of class every week from 9 to 4, tutoring until 6, and homework until 10pm. Oh, and it was all in Mandarin; we weren’t allowed to speak in English except on weekends. The details elude me, but I remember we’d study between 20-50 vocabulary words every other day, usually in a deadline-induced panic to pass the next test.
Most of us had a meltdown at least once that semester. Mine came when I volunteered to be the class representative for our end-of-semester speech contest (seriously, I swear every Chinese course has a speech contest).
Early in the semester, I’d noticed that one other guy in the program had hearing aids, but I thought he didn’t sign. He’d seen my cochlear implant, but he thought I didn’t sign, either. We didn’t run into each other a lot since he was on the non-immersion track, which focused on non-language courses and allowed for about 500% more free time than the immersion students got, so of course they spent that time touring the city and interacting more with natives in one week than we got in an entire semester because we were holed up in our rooms doing homework.
So, we went on like that, hanging out with our own groups, not signing, until one day just before Thanksgiving. We were in the hallway together, and when he caught my eye, he tentatively moved his hands: “do you sign?” I responded, “Yes, I do!” And we made brief, hurried plans to sit together at the program’s Thanksgiving dinner just to have a conversation in ASL after nearly three months of spoken Mandarin and English.
Lest this sounds like the beginning to an epic love story: the guy was gay. Just to get that out of the way. Anyhoo, we did indeed grab a seat next to each other at the Thanksgiving dinner, and started signing while also speaking in Mandarin and English to the others, and oh my gosh. I can’t begin to describe what an absolute mindwarp that was.
Both of us had forgotten vocabulary in English and ASL. “There was the red… umm… red… oh geez, I forgot the sign for red. What’s the sign for red?!” Our grammar was all screwed up. Looking back on it, I’m amazed I maintained any semblance of coherency, shifting between three languages at the same time.
It didn’t stop there. At the end of the semester, I had a sign language interpreter and a cued language transliterator for our two-week study trip, because the other CLT broke her leg and couldn’t make it. We had several instances where I ended up translating for them (or trying to) because they didn’t know a word of Chinese beyond the basic pleasantries.
Language. It does funny things to the brain.