No More Tongue

I started studying Spanish in the 7th grade. Mostly because my friends were taking it and because my brother Andrew was on a mission in Argentina and he would need someone to talk to when he got home. I make no claims that junior high Spanish is difficult or challenging but I was good at it. Really good at it. I have noticed that when one is good at a thing, they tend to love said thing. I kept on it and chose it as my major when I went to college. I started literature classes, history classes, Latin American revolution classes (that was a goody), pre-Colombian culture classes and I loved all of it (please note above deep insight, as I continued to be very good at it). When I decided to go on my mission, I began to have dreams. I knew I was going to Mexico. It was revelation that felt as earnest and true as my connections with my dead dad and forgiveness of my teenage sins (I was a bad kid).

I got called to Tokyo Japan.

I was baffled for a bit but mostly felt overwhelmed by this place about which I knew nothing that I forgot to ask God about his misleading revelations. Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto, Domo. Domo. This was what I knew of Japanese. I vaguely knew that Sayonara also belonged to this language but could it be Korean? I could never remember. Did it have tones? Holy shi*, I thought.

In the MTC, I was the only one in my district who had not studied Japanese. It turned out not to matter though, because somehow I was good at Japanese too, though this was more than my little intellect I was sure of it. I felt it. Being smarter and more capable than I normally was (I know, I know you think this cannot be possible) and Japanese flowed right out of me. I was lucky, I had almost all Japanese companions which meant required SYL and I somehow liked all things Japanese. Suddenly swords were cool (normally, not cool, please) and fish jello was tasty. This whole love of culture and tongue was exhilarating to me and I felt confident that God was directing me on a new life path. I knew I would be forever connected with these people, this language.

I got home and kept taking more Japanese classes at BYU, kept up friendships with Japanese foreign exchange students, because I liked them and because I wanted to keep up my language skills. I taught at the MTC. I continually contemplated my life connection with Japan and God’s desire for me to be involved with it. Then things happened and slowly I got more interested in literature and had to graduate. I moved to Boston and lost my Japanese friends. My Japanese language skills became a parlor trick, see monkey! speak Japanese! which meant that I was really good at some really random phrases and/or talking to myself.

Now I am in Iquitos Peru, a decade after my mission. I am not good at Spanish. And my Japanese feels like it has faded into nothing. Sometimes, when I start a conversation with a girl in the market that I cannot finish or when I’m trying to pay my electric bill or when the police are pounding on my door in search of a previous tenant, I think dammit! I could do this in Japanese. At one time, I could have done this. I could have made a joke. Made small talk. Sounded authentic. I feel like I’ve lost more than Japanese though, that I’ve lost this feeling of God telling me my life path. Of loving a people or a language so much that I cannot part with them. Now mostly I fumble through Spanish and wish I could go out for a vanilla steamer with my friends and eat a fresh salad. My husband and I do good work here. I think it’s important, hopefully fewer people will get dengue fever as a result (RT/JNS tell them how bad it is) but it doesn’t feel like what I felt on my mission. What I felt when I was speaking Japanese.

This might be a loss of innocence, the loss of my youth, less cynical, more believing and bright-eyed. It might be loneliness wanting the attention and the love of speaking another’s language. But I also just want my Japanese back. And the fish-jello, anime making people that understood me.


  1. Amri, is it maybe that while you’re relearning Spanish you’re surrounded by fewer other people learning Spanish than you were by people learning Japanese when you were on your mission? The norm in Iquitos is that people can just speak Spanish, right? And hey, you already learned it once, so maybe it feels more frustrating this time around? I know I’ve always enjoyed learning languages more when I have lots of other people around me sharing my struggles.

    Give it a few months – once things click, it will be like riding a bicycle, and I bet you’ll enjoy it again.

    Dengue is very, very bad. RT almost died of it. Whenever I think about your work, I feel really grateful that you guys are willing to move to the Peruvian jungle to try and stop it.

  2. Nothing substantive to say beside that I found your post quite moving, Amri.

  3. S.P. Bailey says:

    I got dengue fever on my mission. It was not awesome. And I loved speaking Portuguese reasonably well. I miss that…

  4. This is true, Taryn. There aren’t many foreigners around, so that we can all be in it together. Being bad a Spanish together.

    It’s funny to have something mean so much, be so telling of your life turn into something that doesn’t have quite so much affect. I was sure my mission would change my life course. But it didn’t. It was fun, I loved it, but I’m not a wholly different person because of it. Some are lucky and get to use their mission languages but it didn’t happen to me and I’m surprised I guess.

    And I say for all of BCC, we are very glad RT did not die of dengue fever.

  5. aw, shucks Stapers, thanks.

    And SP we are also very glad you did not die of it.

  6. Amri, I tried desperately to hold onto my French. BYU classes, law school, living in France…. but now much of it is gone, regardless. But I wouldn’t say that I’m not wholly different because of it. I can’t really assess the impact.

    A moving post, though, and I’m glad you wrote it.

  7. Maybe you don’t feel as directed b/c you are doing a good work, but not the Lord’s direct work. Not bad obviously, but not as good so not as much of an influence.

  8. California Condor says:

    This post reminds me of how simple life was at the MTC.

  9. Very nice Amri. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I learned Russian and loved it like my own mother. I worked tooth and nail to master it. I miss it so much. I studied it at the BYU when I got back, did non-profit work in Russia, and now I teach Russian at U of Michigan. But it’s not the same. I hope to do ethnographic fieldwork in Russia sometime during the next few years. But I doubt it will ever be quite the same.
    A gift indeed…

  11. Oh, it was on my mission that I learned Russian. In the Russia Samara mission (for which I just named my daughter).

  12. Amri–

    This is so interesting: I wonder if you are the smarter, better-looking version of myself–my dopleganger.

    I was also called to Japan unexpectedly. I had once seen Shogun, that was it. Everyone in my MTC district had studied Japanese and my companion was halfu. But, I stunk at Japanese and although I improved, I still was not great in the end. Nevertheless, I taught at the MTC after.

    Then I did Peace Corps in Africa. It was an outstanding experience and I extended for a third year. It was not the same as a mission. It was nowhere near as hard as a mission–I was in PC an individual doing my will; I went on vacation, read, saw movies, etc. in my off time. I had off time. I cannot articulate the difference–I guess that although the work was good work, it was in no way sacred or sanctified.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    The title from this post comes from what Amri told me when we finally decided to just be friends after all.

    Actually, Amri, I kind of have a complex about never having learned a modern language to the extent of being able to converse easily in it at all. I served my mission in Colorado, so no language there. I studied dead languages in college, which entails almost entirely reading (and typically one composition class). Since then I’ve studied a little German and Russian, but only at a beginning level.

    So I envy those who have had that experience, even if the knowledge has evaporated into the ether in the meantime.

  14. I heart Amri.

  15. Sam Kitterman says:

    I, too, share in that pain of the joy of being fluent in a second language, only to have the passage of years to put layers of dust on that flluency (including dreaming in it and talking in my sleep in that language which for me was German). But after 30 years away from the mission field I got to go back (my wife commenting that for once in our 28 years of marriage she would truly have to trust and rely on me 100% because she spoke no German other than Guten Tag and Ich liebe dich….
    I think I bought more books and CDs to warm my German up for that 9 day trip than I ever spent in the LTM (for you young pups, that was the Language Training Mission)….
    And what was more amazing was that as we walked around Munich, the memories that came to the surface even from the ozone smell of the subway system. Walking by the apartment building (in the old city, in the middle of a red light district)…

    And for those memories I will always be dankbar.

    Sam K.

  16. Amri, I don’t know why, but my experience has been different. My German is still pretty decent, I think, and I try to find opportunities to speak it. I usually do my scripture reading from my missionary scriptures, and I still feel strongly connected to Bremen and Gottingen.

    If you haven’t already had to clean your computer after reading the first sentence of Kevin Barney’s comment, you might enjoy this cinematic masterpiece.

  17. gosh, i really relate to this! well, except the mission part. despite living within minutes of the mexico border, my mom insisted i take french in high school. i did that for three years, greatly excelled (you know, as far as high school french goes), and then moved on to spanish. i realized i just had a “gift” for languages and really fell in love with spanish. then i studied hawaiian at university of hawai’i (manoa) and wanted to marry it. THAT was the language i was born to speak. and now? we’ve moved and no one around me speaks hawaiian. i met a ka’imipono last night and was so excited to speak to her (her!), but she didn’t know a lick of hawaiian. boo, hiss. one of my big fears is that i’ll lose it completely. i need to seek out some polynesians around these here parts and see what i can hang onto.

  18. I, too started learning Spanish in 7th grade. Got called to Korea. However, they wouldn’t let me teach at the LTM/MTC when I came home.

    What has me more confused, however, is sign language. For several months my companion worked with the deaf community in Seoul, and I picked up quite a bit while we were together. Fast forward several years and my wife and I take a sign language class together. I do miserably, because the Koreal Sign Language signs just make more sense than do the ASL signs. As if keeping up with spoken/written Korean isn’t hard enough, there just isn’t a large Korean Sign Language community here in the States.

  19. Oh man, I hear what you’re saying. Everyday I’m frustrated trying to form sentences in Arabic and think if only this was Spanish I could do this! Back in the US though and at home in South Texas I was usually too worried that my native Spanish was too rusty and didn’t use it. Now I feel stupid for having squirreled away a language I can speak so so so much better than Arabic.

    Kevin, beautiful!

  20. Mind you, I have no desire to be back on a mission. In fact the only nightmares I remember is when I’ve gotten called again and I’m stuck with a companion, knocking doors, talking to people in the streets, sitting through sacrament meetings. Ugh. But I feel regret for having something that I worked so hard for, that I felt was miraculous in its own way, and now it’s gone.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way.

    And Kevin, I’m glad we’re friends. I hope you get over your non modern language mission complex because my sleeping Japanese has nothing on your Greek, Latin….

  21. It is easier when you’re younger, coz. Else why would I have found Japanese so much easier than Spanish–other than the fact that I worked about 10,000 times as hard to learn Japanese than Spanish, but I thought that wouldn’t matter because Spanish would be 1/10,000th as hard to learn.

    Anyway, yoroshiku onegai shimasu!

  22. and spectator, I’ve always wanted a doppleganger. I’m glad it’s you.

    Please don’t do any dopplegangerish things though, like steal my friends or kill me. That’s always so awkward.

  23. Aaron Brown says:

    Spanish-speaking RMs are relatively fortunate, as it is easier to find opportunities to use one’s second language, and thereby maintain fluency. At least if you live in Los Angeles and choose to talk to the people around you. I remember thinking, as a pre-missionary, how cool it would be to get called to somewhere obscure like Iceland. But how often would I get to practice my Icelandic once the mission was over? Never. So I developed an appreciation for the chance to learn a language that I was likely to be able to always use, to one extent or another. (I went to Argentina).

    That said, I did two majors in college, one of which was Russian. I’m almost embarrassed to say that, since I really don’t have much to show for it. It was really, really hard to take the more advanced classes with RMs who’d served in Russia; I was typically one of the smarter students in my other classes, but there I was definitely one of the least competent.

    So I guess all I’m saying is that I do relate to language frustration, and I do relate to wishing I had better skills, or more opportunities to hone them than I do. My frustrations just stem from college, rather than the mission.

    Aaron B

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    “i met a ka’imipono last night and was so excited to speak to her (her!), but she didn’t know a lick of hawaiian.”

    Kaimi Wenger is a woman? I knew it …

    Aaron B

  25. I too studied Spanish, and then 3 years of French. While at BYU, many of my friends took Japanese but I didn’t because I wasn’t interested — so they sent me to Fukuoka, Japan.
    I think it has as much to do with perceived ability to learn a language as which one you know. There was one sister in my mission with a Masters in Spanish. She nearly had a breakdown when we ran into some Spanish speakers and, while she could understand every word, only Japanese would come out.
    I am glad Heroes helps me keep up my language. ;)

  26. Nani sore? Heroes?

  27. Shiranai?
    Miite kudasai.

  28. Amri-chan–
    Shinpai shinaidei; in true Japanese fashion, I am too busy for that.

  29. Yamette kudasai!

    Amri, your story could have been mine in many ways. After my mission, I enrolled in Japanese as a freshman – and quickly found out that there simply wasn’t a good fit for fluent RM’s who couldn’t read kanji at Harvard. I spoke the language better than most grad students (better than the gard student who taught the 3rd year class, actually), but I read it and wrote it like a typical freshman. I was bored to tears in class, and completely overwhelmed by the homework – so I dropped it and finished the year in intro Chinese, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to spoken Japanese.

    Twenty-odd years later, I still can rip off a staple sentence about having lost my Japanese due to lack of practice, but I am completely lost when the language tarts to flow – and nearly all of the simplest words have disappeared from my memory. I wish it were different, but I am at peace with it – specifically because I love what I have done since my mission and what I am doing now – and also because I realize that having to teach the Gospel in a language in which I couldn’t succumb to pride and try to wax eloquent was a priceless blessing.

  30. Peter LLC says:

    Hmm. This hasn’t been my experience at all. I studied German from 8th grade through graduation, was hella good on the mish and am way better today. I’ve even found a way to get paid for my mad skillz.

    Where there’s a will… ;)

  31. That was much too polite, Ray-kun. For this crowd (Amri excepted) a simple YAME! would work.

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