30 July 2010

Science confessions: Language

Honesty time.

Over this weekend, I will be getting on a plane to go to the Ninth International Congress of Neuroethology in Spain.

And it’s scaring the hell out of me.

This is not typical for me. I think I’ve said before that conferences are one of the most enjoyable parts of being an academic for me. It’s not an accident that one of the pictures I use a lot is one of me in front of one of my conference posters. Because I’m actually kind of happy.

But this one, I’m just not anticipating as much as I usually do.

Part of it is probably because I was just at a conference last week. And by the end of it, I felt a little ill, with the combination of food and five hours of sleep a night catching up with me. I am wondering if two conferences in three works is going to do me over.

Part of it is that I worry about the carbon cost of conference travel.

But since I promised I’d be honest, it’s the prospect of going to Spain that is getting to me. I’ve been overseas before. I’ve even lived in another country for a couple of years. But this is the first time I’ve traveled to a place where English isn’t a main language.

And it’s going to be a continual reminder of something I’m not proud of: that I only speak English. I believe that being able to carry on conversations in more than one language is partly a mark of an educated, sophisticated person. I know a small amount of French, but it’s not good enough for me to follow or engage in real-time conversation.

I’m going to spend a lot of time feeling stupid when I’m in Spain. And I am vain: I’ve invested a lot of my self-identity in being an academic, an intellectual, and trying to be intelligent. But change the language, and suddenly little kids have more ability than me to navigate around and do things. I’m going to have to rely on the ability of knowledge of others more than I’d like.

But why I am going? Mainly because I will have a chance to see some people that I don’t see very often.


Psi Wavefunction said...

I thought doing science makes one indifferent and quite accustomed to feeling stupid =D Being stupid enables one to ask better questions, as the best questions are often the stupidest ones...

Don't worry, it being western Europe, there'll likely always be someone around who speaks at least some sort of English, or pretends to anyway. In many parts of the world, foreigners who can't speak the language are an increasingly common sight, so people are quite used to it.

One of my favourite feelings ever is being somewhere abroad where I don't understand the language. I rarely get to do that (except for some neighbourhoods here in Vancouver, where English disappears altogether, replaced by Chinese dialects), but it's so liberating to be somewhere else, and being able to blame your stupidity/awkwardness on the language barrier!

Disclaimer: lived most of my life speaking a foreign language - English...

Strolling in the Wind said...

I can empathize; I will be overseas in China for some months soon and may have some similar sentiments. In the U.S., it's so easy to google businesses and find out more about them via smartphones, etc., but when the information online is in a foreign language, it's not going to be so easy.

But perhaps you can make sure to travel and spend time with someone/some people who are equally proficient in English and Spanish.