Monday, January 28, 2013


Whenever our family speaks about foreign languages, it’s only a matter of time before someone recalls our oldest daughter’s Norwegian friends from Spain. Two sons of a diplomatic family had moved to Madrid after a previous posting in Brazil. When a group of 11th graders decided to go out on the town together, our daughter overhead them run through four successive languages. They began, with the rest of the students, in Spanish. They made a quick call home for permission, and the phone was answered  by their long-time maid. They spoke to her in Portuguese, then asked for their mother. They spoke to her in Norwegian. Elated, they told my daughter and her Irish friend (in English), that they could stay out until midnight.  

We’ve witnessed other impressive family combinations: Danish-Spanish-English; Dutch-Malay-Czech-English; Swedish-Farsi-English; and German-Swiss German-English. I am lost in admiration for the effortless talent on display as people switch languages as easily as turning the knob on a radio station.  And I am swept up in jealous frustration as I realize that such facility will never be mine.

Our children jokingly berate us: “Why did you marry each other? Two English-speaking Americans, what were you thinking, we didn't stand a chance!” And they are probably right, although they don’t realize the overwhelming dominance of English means that we’d not only have to marry foreigners, but then move to the ends of the earth to avoid hearing English.  

Trapped in English, they join us in our eternal ambivalence about language. They see the hard work that it takes to gain fluency, the so-so results, and the waste as we move from one country to the next, ever the dilettantes.

Harold, undoubtedly the most ardent student of languages, collects dictionaries as a hobby, the more obscure, the better. He introduced me to Ladino, or Sephardic Spanish; to Lunfardo, the Cockney of Buenos Aires; and to Quechua and Nahuatl, just two of the pre-Colombian languages of Latin America. He delves deeply into origins. How is Quebecois different from French? Where does Romanian fall on the Slavic vs Romance language continuum? The children are well aware of the shelves full of dictionaries, (a few of which are in the photo above) but if they need a quick word translated they whip out their iphones. 

I take a more pragmatic approach, learning successive languages as an adult for my next work assignment. Trying to anticipate the kind of words I’ll need, I slag off the chapter on auto repair, but hone in on political and economic terms. How do you say “fall of the government?”

I wish I had a triumphal story – a moment in which my Czech, Spanish, or French saved the day and did me proud. But the only example that comes to mind serves to echo the frustrations of learning too many languages as an adult.  

It fell to me to deliver the embassy’s Fourth of July address, a formal occasion with national anthems, Marine color guards, and the President of the Czech Republic at my side. If ever there was a moment for linguistic eloquence – this was it. I wrote the speech myself and had it translated by Czech staff, and then had them work with me, painstakingly, to get it letter-perfect. I rehearsed in the car, in the bathroom, and at my desk. This was a matter of pride and something I deeply cared about. 

“How good is her Czech?” my impudent son asked a Czech waiter when the great day came. He got the hand waggling, so-so reply. “Good enough,” the waiter said. 

All that work to get a lousy passing grade? Can it be possible my Czech was not exquisite? And therein lies the tale of my disappointing relationship with languages.

Fast forward a few years, and my Czech is all but forgotten. We are sitting in Norwell and our youngest is tussling with AP Spanish 5. This makes her an advanced student by Massachusetts standards, but seeing her struggle with the pasado del subjunctivo, I can see that taking high school Spanish in an Anglo town is a lousy way to learn. She gets bored. She wonders about Russian, Italian, anything but facing another worksheet drill. I feel like I’ve failed her. How could we have dragged her to so many countries, to end up having her learn language the hard way? How could we have spent so many rich years overseas to end up so poor in languages?

It’s too late for me, but she still has a chance. She’s young enough to go live abroad, to live with a family, to pick a small town where English is a rarity. She could end up speaking far, far better than I. But only at the high price of leaving. 

I chalk up her struggle as just another chapter in our tantalizing, but ultimately disappointing relationship with languages.  

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