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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sorry - I'm Useless

I was raised in a number of small towns in Minnesota, and I have to admit that as a child I was completely unaware of the possibility that anyone in the U.S. spoke anything other than English.

The idea that people conversed in the home, in schools, in a language I couldn’t understand? Astonishing. Please forgive me, but everyone I knew – everyone! – had been in the country for at least generations.

Takse mikke. Rumpa. Danke schoen. Thanks ever so much.
Only fragments of the languages of our ancestors remained, small words and phrases here and there.

It wasn’t until my father brought me to a new school for seventh grade that I even thought about other languages.

“Language Spoken at Home Other Than English” was one of the lines on the registration form. My father, the King of Smart Alecks, filled in “Obscene”.

A complete lie, but it looked good on paper.

Seventh grade was not only a new school but the year we could start taking a language other than our own.

“Sign up for French,” my father insisted. “The smartest people speak French.”

And so it was that I took four years of French. And zut alors, it’s made me much better at menus and crossword puzzles than I used to be. But from a conversational aspect, I’ve only run into one French person in Minnesota, a woman. Her husband had pulled over during a blizzard to help me out of the ditch that I had thoughtlessly plowed into just moments before. She spoke no English; and I, flustered and shaking, told her in high school French my name, my age, and that her breakfast would arrive in just a few moments. She told me my French was perfect. We had a good laugh.

I should’ve taken Spanish, really. No offense to the French, but there are, as far as I can tell, no recently emigrated French people on the bus, while there are plenty of Mexicans and Suramericanos.

Unfortunately, the only Spanish I can reliably come up with is a sentence that I hear over and over on the telephone help lines: Para español, marco dos – for Spanish, press “2”.

Over the years, it’s embarrassed me that I’ve no fluency in any language but my own, and so I’ve made a habit of trying to pick up phrases where I can.

My abilities in German range from “Vielen Dank für Deine Hilfe” (thanks for your help) to “Dieses ist Gutes Bier” (this is good beer) to “Ich habe keinen Hut”; which, of course, means “I have no hat”.

You’d be surprised how often this comes in handy. I say it every chance I get.

I can ask for the ashtray, a drink, and for you to sit here, next to me, in Russian.

I can’t spell any of it, of course, but that’s not important. What’s important is how often that’s all the Russian you need.

Hardly a citizen of the world, am I? If I haven’t had a number of drinks with someone who speaks something other than English or been inundated with it over automated 1-800 numbers asking me to press “1” for English, “2” for Spanish, et cetera, then I am essentially mute.

There is an old saying in Czech (according to the old Czechs): Learn a new language and gain a new soul.

Unfortunately, I can only say that in English.

30 comments:

Jimmy Bastard said...

I tried to pick up the lingo on holiday last year in Greece, but our lovely tour guide insisted that I conquer the English language first.

Cheeky bisom.

Everyday Goddess said...

Moi, aussi.

Et alors, high school French will get you nowhere in France.

le Fin.

Cogitator said...

As an English guy living in France I can only sympathise. My French is a lot better than it used to be, but I'm not any kind of match for a native speaker.

Simply Suthern said...

I have never lived more than 6 miles from where I was born and I aint sure if that is a good or bad thing. With poor command of the english language and a southern accent I face the world. I prolly should have taken Proper English as a second language. I catch a lot of grief from the folks at work but they are from other places and talk funny too. They are from someplace called Upsate NY or somthin like that.

CatLadyLarew said...

I made the mistake of taking Spanish in high school, Italian in college and auditing a French class post college. Now all I can do is give a smidgen of each... all mixed up in the same sentence. (My grandmother was Czech, but I picked up nothing from her, which is probably just as well... it would have meant just one more language to sort out from the rest.)

Barbara Blundell said...

Gangi þér vel að þér!
Barbara

IndigoWrath said...

Hey Pearl, Indigo here. I didn't get a choice about taking French - it was compulsory at my UK school - but I later had to choose between German and Spanish. I chose badly. So, while I enjoyed a few days speaking French in Morocco last year, and can honestly say Ich spreche Deutsche ein bisschen, I sadly do not Hablo Español. Indigo

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

We will all be speaking some bastardized form of English/Spanish/French/Ebonics/Yiddish anyways in 25 years.

I love Europe for many reasons but one is their desire to communicate with each other. A couple of World Wars will do that to you. Many speak several languages besides the one in their homes.

My sister has a gift for languages honed from the time we lived in Europe. She was bringing some immigrant child home everynight for supper.

I can only speak certain phrases that all relate to kids in the classroom and my desire for them to get settled and to listen. And to move faster. And that I can see what they are doing. I used a phrase in Ukrainian for years that I thought meant 'Good Morning, It's going to be a good day.' That my mother told me. Seems she was just messing with me. It actually meant. 'Oh good, the cows are coming back from the fields'.

Zaedah said...

Due to family heritage and my drill sergeant father's belief that boredom equals trouble, I speak Cherokee. Ask me how often THAT'S come in handy. Go ahead... ask!

Ann's Rants said...

If I could combine my years of spanish with my childhood hebrew school knowledge, I'd be sort of a little fluent in a new language.

Akelamalu said...

I saw your name over at Dumdad's and just had to visit my namesake - it's not very often I get to meet another Pearl. :)

Hubby and I taught ourselves passable Turkish when we were holidaying there frequently. Of course we've forgotten it all now. ;)

Charlotte Ann said...

The husbands first language is Spanish although Tex Mex might be a better description of it. When in Italy, the Italians spoke Italian to him and he answered in Spanish and they did well together. My mother's first language was Italian and she and hubby of course could converse using their own native language. I want to learn Spanish.
You know what they call a person that speaks more then one language? Bilingual.
Do you know what they call a person that speaks only one language? An American.
Sorry..this was told to us while in Germany.

Elliott said...

I took French for eight years, and you're right, I rock the menus and crossword puzzles.

And I know requisite phrases in Spanish, Italian and German to get me a beer and food, and find the 'necessary' afterward.

Nuke Girl said...

I took Latin for two years in high school, and German for two years in college; and I don't remember more than a smattering of either one.

Not being multilingual does not make you useless. :)

Smocha said...

One of my kids flunked French in High school. But not before he taught me to say "Gamma peil Gilbet"
(unsure of that spelling)

I was raised mostly between California and Arkansas. To ME,I have no accent at all but when I lived in Chicago there was one man at work who would sing the Beverly Hillbillies song every time he saw me.

Go figure.

Molly Potter said...

My sister and I can speak pretend French and Russian really well. Fools everyone. Except the French and the Russians.

Linguists have a part of their brain that functions really well. I have a hole in that part.

J'ai oublie le francais que J'ai attendu??!!

savannah said...

i live in the south, we speak ebonics, sugar. xoxxoxo

Laoch of Chicago said...

Long ago I went to the Sorbonne in Paris for a semester. My French was not really up to par but I could fluently express two sentiments that were crucial to seeing me through:

merde (shit) (incredibly useful, used by everyone there in almost every context.)

and

une bière s'il vous plaît (a beer please) (self explanatory)

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I learned Spanish first, and then French. Then I failed to use them for 20 years or so. When we started meeting lots of Spanish-speaking ballplayers and their families (through the St. Paul Saints) I brushed up on my Spanish, and we made some great friends. But I definitely mix a lot of French words in by mistake. And while there are many similar words in Spanish and French, somehow those are never the ones I come up with.

I also learned to say in German, my hat is on the table. What is it about Germans and their hats?

Green-Eyed Momster said...

I should really learn Spanish. Then I'd know what everyone was sayin'.

Hugs!!

Kavi said...

I didnt get beyond bonjour madame in French ! :) Ah French !

Cheeseboy said...

I know exactly one person that speaks French fluently and they are not from France. However, I know at least 86 people that took 4 years of French in high school.

Secretia said...

I long ago observed that people who had years of a language in high school will not even try to speak it.

Secretia

Lidian said...

I was forced to take 6 years of French in high school and have nothing to show for it, really, because am no good at languages. Ditto the German and Latin in college. And let's not mention Old English (mind you, I'm never going to run into Beowulf on the train - well, you see guys who LOOK like Beowulf but that's another story...)

Christine Gram said...

I feel the same way... and that is why I had to move to Italy. I couldn't stand not speaking my husband's native tounge and full immersion was the only way to beat it into my brian... still hammering away actually.

And I see my 9 year old soaking up his third language and I'm terrified to move back to the states.

mapstew said...

You'll be ok with English when you visit here, we're still trying to (re)learn our own language!

Nil ach cupla focal agam! :¬)

Slainte maith!

xxx

Teena in Toronto said...

I took French from grades 7 to 12 and it was my elective in university (so two courses). Can I speak French, which is one of our two national languages? Non!

La compagnie que je travaille pour est basée au Québec et fournit des leçons françaises pour n'importe qui qui les veut.

sage said...

I like your father--that sounds like an answer I would have given!

injaynesworld said...

So glad you posted this at BPOW. I love what you've said here and, as always, the way you've said it. Spanish was mandatory when I was in grade school. Mind you this was was in the 60s in a white-bread town with not a person of color in sight. Go figure. I can still say "muy caliente" which is "very hot" and often do as I now live in a rural area where there are lots of Hispanics and it gets very hot here in the summer. I can also say "muy gringo" when declining hot sauce. ;)

Vanessa Rogers said...

I am impressed with your library of random phrases in other languages. I have traveled quite a bit, and I cannot boast so many phrases in other languages as you :)