A Second Language

Something inside of me is broken… and there is no fix. I can learn. I can adapt. I can make up for it. But it will always be broken.

I am missing a crucial chip deep within the mechanisms of my brain, quintessential to the human existence. …I don’t possess it. I can look normal. I can speak normal. I can seem to respond normal. But at the end of the day, without this chip, I am not normal. And it can wreak its havoc as a result.

I can compare this to when I lived in France. Although I spoke French very well, people speaking always seemed muddled. It was like I was trying to listen underwater. It was rarely crystal clear. French always felt like there was a curtain or a barrier obstructing my hearing and making it far more challenging than my native English. English was like emerging from the water bright as day. Easy. Effortless. Natural.

Living and functioning in a second language,  I was so good at filling in the gaps of vocabulary missed I didn’t even realize I was doing it. My brain became an expert problem solver. I intuitively pieced together the other spoken words, context, and visual clues to make the understandable puzzle. In a second language, context is larger than you could imagine. When I was first learning French, I often could not decipher what I was hearing without the context. Context is huge. Visual signs are a big one too. I remember how challenging it was speaking on the phone. Many other expats would get their French friends to make phone calls for them. Those nonverbal clues are crucial when you do not have a full bearing on the language.

My social skills of processing others’ communication appear to be like those same murky waters. …Except I don’t have a first language to compare. I don’t know I’m taking in cues through a barrier. I think I am hearing crystal clear because I do not have any understanding of what crystal clear is. And like in French, there are some things I can understand perfectly and get right easily. But unlike French, not knowing what crystal clear is, I don’t have any concept of what I am getting correct in comparison to the wrong. I have no bearing. So I function and move naturally with all this information. Flawed or not. I have no other choices.

But just like there is listening in a second language, speaking is also a skill. Context plays a large role here too. In the beginning when my level was low, depending on the conversation, people would be very impressed with my language and I would get the flowing compliments of how I was just like a native speaker and the ones of: of course I spoke the language great! what was I talking about saying I couldn’t… or…  … I would get the frustrated blank stare as I couldn’t spit out a word to save my life and people would flatly and dully respond in English as if I did them some great insult or inconvenience at my piddly attempt. The difference was context. Conversations, words, and phrases I said again and again and heard and watched French people say over and over and over… and over, I could do like a native. You know, the things like grocery store interactions, things to say to a waiter, talking about where you’re from, and common expressions and idioms. Things that I had little or no experience in, I fell flat. In new territory I hadn’t possessed the skills or experience yet to be successful.

A challenge in speaking that I never fully grasped was communicating abstract and complex ideas. I was never able to do this. French is a difficult language in general–I mean come on, they have an entire tense of conjugated verbs that is never spoken but used only in literary writing! I would try, but what I was trying to say always got missed. Phrases expressing complex ideas and requiring specific combinations of verb tenses to grasp the right tone, were just out of my league.

I am seeing this same similarity of speaking in a second language when I try to express how I am feeling to others in unknown territory. I grew up being a very agreeable child and avoided all confrontations and all things negative. I very rarely expressed, if ever even, any feelings of negativity to anybody else. I didn’t possess the understanding of empathy that I should. I understood when I told somebody something sad, negative, or unhapppy, they also became sad. Thus, I attributed telling somebody how I feel sad on the same level as if I intentionally hurt them by an insult or something mean. I didn’t know the difference between the two kinds of sads. All I saw was x + y = z when really there is an infinite number of algorithms in the human mind for every interaction involving empathy or sadness. It is never cut and dry like that. I thought it was. Therefore, I avoided “making people sad” by talking about any kind of negative feelings I was experiencing.

It also doesn’t help that expressing negative emotions with others is very complex and not at all easy. It is hard water to learn to tread in. Not wanting to cause waves or ever not be liked, it is understandable that I also avoided expressing these things.

This leaves me with no skill set in this area. As an adult, I’ve tried. So I do have some schema and experience. But with the few times I have, an unfortunate pattern is arising. It doesn’t work. I think I am saying one thing. I think I am making one impression. And then it just turns out, I am not all. And unfortunately, by the time it comes out, it is usually too late to easily fix, if at all. The person has already formed this viewpoint in their mind and it’s either impossible to clear or little remnants and pieces remain scattered farther influencing how they now see my interactions. The human brain functions on unconsciously sorting observations (especially on people) into instant categories. This category of me has already been primed and fed. The weed may be pulled but the seed is still planted. And I don’t know how to not do this. I don’t know how not to create misconceptions. I don’t know how to express things in the way they actually are.

I have no idea the wrong things I’ve said or the wrong ways I’ve said them in. The very pertinent and main things that I thought were said very clear, seem to be entirely forgotten. I don’t know how to make certain things stick and “memorable” and certain things not. I also don’t know what needs to be said that I am not saying. I am not fluent. This does not seem to be my first language. In fact, I seem to have no first language. I am like one of those feral children that come out of the woods having been raised by wolves.

So add the flawed expression with interpreting flawed signals and now give it some time back and forth before it’s discovered and you have an I Love Lucy episode on your hands. Except… real life isn’t funny… and it isn’t resolved in a five minute conversation where the slate is wiped completely clean the next episode… and slapsticky misinterpretations leave real damage.

I have no answers. I just know this pattern is here. And it is disheartening and it is scary. I feel like any friends I open up to and try to talk about negative things in my life, I just end up pushing away.

And my incorrect, childhood understanding of empathy still lingers. Sometimes I feel like I am knowingly inflicting bad feelings on someone else and bringing them down. And I feel a lot of guilt about that. I feel like I am a bad person or should/could be seen as one. And in saying so many of the wrong things so much of the time, this probably is not just something in my head. I am saying or conveying hurtful things. So a lot of times, I don’t say anything until it’s to the point where it’s too severe not too. Or, like my childhood and teenage self, I don’t say anything at all.

But humans cannot live like this. Humans are not meant to live like this. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve let my guard down and I’ve taken many risks I never would have before. And I suppose, I will just keep doing that because there is no other choice in this land that I am a stranger in. And, slowly by slowly, I do pick up skills here and there.

The best thing anyone could do is just have patience and an open mind. Avoid jumping to conclusions and avoid filling in the gaps; because the chances are, I am giving you the wrong pieces to form your conclusion. The most important thing is to be ready to throw away an idea or a perception and to trust and try to learn when I say… it is not that. When this happens, the tendency is to think that I am covering my tracks and playing an easy card that excuses bad behavior. Because it wasn’t just one thing. It was a series. And people don’t act that wrong all the time in a series. Right? Well, people on the spectrum do… and really have no idea until it is brought to light.

Talk to me about it and don’t stop. I want to be able to talk about these things. I brought it up because it’s stirring within me and I want it out. I want it fixed and I want it resolved. If I didn’t want to talk about it, I would not bring it up. But I can’t talk about it in the normal way. Skip the bicycle, screw the kid gloves and training wheels, I would probably need the lowest form–a tricycle. I need all the help I can get. Don’t consider the issue done or resolved because it was addressed once. I am not beating a dead horse. I don’t even have the dead horse. My attempts to keep resolving something mean I am trying to work at acquiring one. But each step I am learning, and I want to learn. Feedback told in a calm and kind manner is good. Asking questions to clarify is really good. Being present and proactive in the matter is best.

As much as I am foreign or lacking proper hardware in my wiring, there is a still a human in there. I am not immune to being a jerk like the rest of us. But talk to me about it. Ask kind, open, defense-letting-down questions. There is either a reason for my actions or I need to be told because I was unaware.

I want to be able to interact with humans. I want to be able to express myself. I want to be able to maintain healthy, positive relationships while doing so. I want these negative feelings out of me in the way that humans do in verbally connecting with one another. I want to be successful in these things. I want to learn these skills that never came built in with me.

You possess this chip that I do not have. You are part of this thing that I am not able to be. I am curious about you and I want to learn from you. I watch and glean from you.  I innately log reactions, results, and consequences that, whether I like it or not, impact my next moves and attempts in this area. This is like learning a second language for me. And I want to learn it. I am freaking Tarzan running around the jungle (but minus all the romantic stalking stuff).

Who doesn’t need a little Phil Collins singing French in their life? But here is the English version so you can imagine this is me. But with more clothes. And not trying to pick up a girlfriend… or save gorillas from something I can’t remember because I have not seen this movie in a long time… poaching…?


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The Traveler in the Dark
Throw a Lifeline

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