Tarot as a Second Language

PageSwordsDetailI’ve been learning Portuguese now for 8 years. Admittedly it’s a little haphazard. Initially, I learned alone, then I took a class in which I proudly got top marks. Sometimes I have intensive weeks of learning, sometimes I skip a month – or two. I’ve switched my Facebook language to Portuguese and my Portuguese friends fill the feed with a variety of status updates. After all this time, I read quite well.

But reading is different from speaking as I’ve found to my cost! Despite often understanding what is being said around me or what’s written on a page, in spoken language I often stumble and stutter and get frustrated with myself.

And I realised last night, how much this is like learning tarot. All of us initially have those moments when we lay out a spread and think “What the hell does that mean?”. It’s much like when you first hear a language you don’t know. It sounds like one long jumble of sound and you can’t even define where one word ends and another begins.

But as you start to learn a few words and phrases, these pop out at you in the midst of the jumble. In those exciting Ace of Wands moments you realise “Wow – I understood that!”. And as time goes on and you learn more, you find you start to get the gist of a conversation – just like when you have been learning tarot for a little while and you get a feel for the spread, an idea of what it might be trying to say.

“Speech is a biologically evolved skill. We have had speech for 4 million years. We have had written language for 4,000 years. We are biologically destined to speak, but not to read or write.” From “The Art of Language” by Robert Lee Hotz

One of the biggest factors that helped me to learn tarot was to speak readings out loud. I still do this today when I read for myself. Much like speaking Portuguese forces me to consider the correct words and grammar, speaking a reading out loud forces me to articulate what the reading is trying to say.

Reading is passive, speaking is active. When you read (or listen) you can ‘get the gist’ but stringing together those words (or in this case, cards) pushes you to connect the cards in a meaningful way. You may know all the keywords of the cards like I know a few thousand Portuguese words but it is not until you can put the words/cards together in a comprehensible way that you can tell the story.

Another aspect is that recognition is easier than recall. For example, I’m sure you’ve experienced that situation where you see someone and you are SURE you know them but you can’t remember their name or the context. Whether learning a language or tarot, the brain needs to make new neural connections to create an environment where you can effortlessly recall what you know. Recall is improved by use, fixing the information into your long-term memory.

Many of us learn some stock phrases when we go abroad. Maybe you have done this too, to help you order food, pass the time or day and get from A – B. You can do this with tarot too, learning a stock phrase or a few sentences for each card by rote. It can certainly help in the early days but over time these phrases become more and more limiting. Stock phrases fail to convey the nuances of meaning. It’s like me only ever learning the word ‘happy’ in Portuguese but never learning ecstatic, pleased, content, cheerful, overjoyed, glad, thrilled and tickled-pink.

Tarot too is a flourishing language that contains many layers of meaning. It is only through working with the cards and attempting to articulate what you see that you can capture the meaning. And much like the people you are with will dictate the flow of the conversation, how you speak and perhaps even the topics, the surrounding cards will influence each other in a reading sometimes subtly changing the meaning or giving added nuance.

When I’ve been around Portuguese people for a few days, my ears become tuned to the language. I find I become quicker at recalling the words I need. Using tarot on a daily basis also fine tunes your perceptions, keeping you immersed in the imagery. It keeps your mind ‘switched on’ and tuned in. I recommend getting into the habit of daily readings for yourself initially. A three card reading will suffice although if you prefer a different spread then go with what feels right.

The trick however is to read this reading for yourself out loud. It’s perfect for practising for reading for others but also it will immediately highlight what you don’t understand. Pausing to gather your thoughts during a reading is certainly sometimes necessary but when you speak a reading out loud it’s very easy to spot when you are stumbling and which cards don’t seem to ‘speak’ to you.

Reading out loud can also be very helpful in encouraging yourself to be more objective about the reading when reading for yourself. I go so far as to visualise myself sat opposite, as if that image of me was a client. I talk in the second person “you are feeling…you might have experienced” to gain a little emotional distance. This technique can also help to ‘get yourself out of the way’ and open up to direct communication from your Guardian/Guide. There are times, when I have been deeply into the reading where I suddenly say something that I didn’t expect to say!

swords08Last night for example, I was speaking about the 8 of swords and I found myself immersed in the picture. I got the impression of the blind-folded woman suddenly falling still as she hears a sound in front of her.

“You’re scared because you don’t know who’s there. It could be someone to help you. It could be someone who’s going to take advantage of your current position. The truth is, in all this ‘could be’ you’re just reacting on fear. If you stop struggling and start listening, you might just find out who is there. Let go of not knowing and use what you do know.”

Listen, learn then use what you know because by using it, you find out what you don’t know.



Learning Tarot – Tips from Second Language Learning

1. Immerse yourself in the ‘language’ initially – read about the cards widely, look at images. Don’t try to remember everything; just let it wash over you and follow what seems interesting to start with and what makes sense to you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it initially, just attune to the tarot environment.

2. When you are ready, start trying a few words. Throw a few cards and say out loud what you see. Don’t be afraid to speak what seems ‘obvious’ or make a mistake.

3. Try learning a few stock phrases or sentences for the cards to get a feel of their individual meanings.

4. Experiment with writing your keywords for the cards – what nouns, verbs and adjectives could you use? What feeling words do the cards invoke?

5. Explore the symbolism in the card – the numerology and the specific images contained within. Understanding the archetypes and symbolism is like understanding the grammatical structure of a foreign language.

6. Speak out loud! Vocalise your readings. Record them if you can. It can be quite enlightening to listen back to a reading you did for yourself a year ago – not only to listen to the advice/prediction but to also consider your delivery and the way you describe the cards.

Do you read your own cards out loud? How are you learning the language of Tarot? Do leave a comment as I’d love to hear your experiences.

Detail from The Page of Swords – The Mythic Deck
Eight of Swords – Rider Waite Deck