November 18, 2023•1,053 words
There are two types of language learning stories that are relatively easy to write, whether you're writing books or blogs, articles or policy papers. First, there's the case of the relentlessly positive author, whose mission seems to be to list all the ways in which being a language learner changes your life and the world around you for the better. And then, there's the bitter and suspicious voice, out to prove that all things multilingual, multicultural and multifaceted are somehow too dangegous and too complex to tolerate, and prone to failure. "Luka" ("Gap"), as I was pleased to discover, refuses to tumble down either of these grooves.
This means it can't have been an easy book to write - and it ends up being, to me at least, a much more rewarding one to read. After a while, you see, the "enthusiast" and "doomsayer" camps begin to cycle through their arguments ever more rapidly and mechanically. Compiling a listicle of all the ways in which being a polyglot helps your brain must, by now, be at least as simple as preparing a compilation of all the headlines pointing to the apparent "woke nonsense" of a multicultural, multilingual or trans-languaging initiative. It's what's in between that fascinates me.
There's so much we just don't know about what language does to us. Solving even a small piece of any linguistic puzzle takes some actual work. One would need to talk to people, armed with patience and seriously good research questions (take that, podcasters). One would have books and papers to consult, studies to analyse and interpret, footnotes and bibliographies to compile - and then, one would still be well advised to present this in a readable, coherent fashion. Jagoda Ratajczak is the one, in "Luka's" case.
The puzzles which "Luka" attempts to trace and unravel are neatly summarized in the book's subtitle: "How shame and fear pierce our tongue/language". The book's chapters look at what happens to language learners and users in a series of context, and none of these are obvious happy endings. How did the educational success of English transform Poland's image of language proficiency? Why are language users ashamed of making mistakes/errors? Why are they quick to judge themselves (and others) by their accents? How is our language study and use affected by fear and perfectionism? And, to expand the field of language use beyond educational settings - how does fear and shame work for language users who experience stuttering - or for those who find themselves learning Polish after arriving from Ukraine?
"Luka" was, for me, a joy to read exactly because it didn't promise to be a feel-good story - and because, despite dealing with awkward, painful or traumatic topics, it managed to talk about the positives quite persuasively. Yes, communication will break down. Yes, language users get cut down by bad teachers or by peers / partners judging their accents or slip-ups. And yet, burned bridges be damned, we manage to communicate.
It's hard to teach an old linguist new tricks, and I wasn't expecting "Luka" to deliver any revelations in terms of new research, or surprising findings. The final two chapters were perhaps the most eye-opening for me - Ratajczak explores the ways in which communities of people who stutter, and Polish learners arriving from Ukraine, deal with their everyday language challenges. These stories - as with the preceding four chapters - blend personal accounts from interviews with quantitative data from reports and insights from other publications.
Throughout the book, this varied approach works really well. The personal accounts, stats and research papers support one another. There's sharpness to it, and depth, and the way in which the stories are shaped is interesting and credible. Huge kudos to Ratajczak for the desk research (clearly spanning several disciplines and venturing beyond just linguistics), and then getting up from said desk to talk (and listen!!!) to people, and including her own accounts and experiences - and being able to confidently and skillfully say, "All of this matters; here's how and why."
"Luka" won't be for everyone, and it's not always delivering equally flawlessly. The ideal audience, I think, will have some professional interest in languages, speech or communication - from teachers to translators, from editors to interpreters - but a layperson may need plenty more patience to power through the book. As for possible omissions which I would love to see covered, the author manages to weave a series of complex psycho-linguistic panoramas... without mentioning introverts or highly sensitive people at all. For these types of language users and learners, a "gap", a silence, a withdrawal, is a strategic choice with a whole new meaning. Is it fear or a strategy? Is it shame or an energy choice?
But these are my personal interests. It's plain to see that Ratajczak was keen on following hers in "Luka" - and did so admirably. For me, the value in finishing books like these is, amond dozens of other things, in new-found respect.
Bridges work, and they sometimes delight us, and sometimes they get burned. Languages serve us, and sometimes they fail or threaten us, and then sometimes we learn them again. Teachers exist everywhere, and sometimes they humiliate us in front of the whole class, but sometimes we meet them at a bus stop.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned, years ago, of the "dangers of a single story". It's disheartening to see the shiny-happy polyglot ideal give way to the reality of everyday constant work. It's tempting to take a mental shortcut to say that "multiculturalism is a failure" and isn't worth attempting. It's hard to resist trying to finish a stuttering person's sentence for them. We crave completeness, neat little rows, no open loops.
"Luka" left me with more questions than answers, and more departures than arrivals, and more restless potential than closure. It's a book which minds the gap with remarkable focus: how it comes to be, what it feels like to experience it, what makes it worse - and what helps bridge it. It's a book of many stories, and if you work with language, they will all be worth knowing. I hope you'll get to read it in English one day (or hit me up for my Polish copy!). And I hope that Jagoda Ratajczak is just getting started.