Speaking in Many Tongues

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As a student I took courses in Latin, German and Spanish. I remember telling friends and relatives what I was doing and often being challenged by the request,”Say something in German (or Spanish or even Latin). I would go into a kind of brain freeze and only be able to stutter something totally inane.

The thing about learning a new language is that it often takes a very long time before the brain actually begins to think in that vernacular rather than starting from English and then translating. It tends to be a slow and often tedious process unless it is used with regularity. Once the instruction phase is complete and there are no more assignments or tests it’s unlikely that there will be continued progress without a concerted effort to use the acquired knowledge on a regular basis.

My father-in-law was a native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico. When he first came to Texas he spoke English somewhat haltingly. The family still speaks of some of the mistakes in vocabulary and grammar with which he struggled. My mother-in-law had hoped to one day be an interpreter so she was able to help him along with the process of becoming more proficient with his speaking. Ultimately he was using English far more than his native Spanish at work, in social situations, and even while at home. He watched television and read voraciously all in English. At some point he was no longer translating from Spanish to English, but instead just naturally speaking the language that he has now used daily for almost seventy years. He recently admitted that while he is able to converse with his Puerto Rican relatives in Spanish he sometimes now finds himself thinking first in English and then translating words and phrases into Spanish.

Mike and I had a dear friend who haled from Germany where his father was born. His mother was Norwegian. He had an amazing facility with languages. He spoke English with no sign of an accent, but also was fluent in both German and Norwegian. He was able to slip easily into other languages as well, like French and Spanish.

Once my Chinese sister-in-law was attempting to teach some words to all of us. We struggled to achieve the correct pronunciations of the very difficult phrases. Only our German friend was able to repeat things exactly as they were meant to be. I suppose that somehow his brain had been trained to pick things up more rapidly than most of us have the ability to do because he first began speaking in different languages when he was a very small child. It was the only way that he was able to communicate with both his German and Norwegian relatives. Later when he attended the Gymnasium he took English and picked up the nuances of that language quickly just as he did with virtually any tongue.

I have the greatest admiration for anyone who is bilingual. Most of us in the United States exert little or no effort to become familiar with other languages, which is truly a shame. We live in such a global symbiosis in which the actions of one country invariably have some sort of effect on others. Those with the capability of communicating in many languages have a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

I have a certain facility with words and languages but I have never been able to reach that magical point at which I easily begin to think in a language other than my own. It is akin to struggling with a mathematical process without a clear understanding of how and why it works. It’s easy, for example, to find the areas of any figures once the concept is grasped. It becomes no longer a matter of remembering formulas and then plugging and chugging. So too is the process of feeling comfortable speaking another language.

I was well on my way to mastering German when I entered college but several things happened that destroyed my confidence. I was corresponding with a German pen pal and doing my best to write all my letters in German. I asked him to write to me in German as well. I hoped to become more and more proficient by not relying on English. Sadly, he became frustrated with my efforts, complaining about my horrendous grammar and poor word choices. He begged me to use only English in the future. I was quite embarrassed and shut down to the point of discontinuing my communication completely.

At the university I took a placement test and was put into a third year German class with a quite arrogant professor and a room full of classmates who had spoken that language with their parents from the time of their births. Our instructor praised them mightily for their proficiency while continually calling me out for what he considered to be a kind of barbarous south German pronunciation. I attempted to explain to him in my best German that I had only begun learning the language two years before landing in his class unlike my lucky peers, but my attempts at a bit of understanding were spurned. He sarcastically suggested that maybe I needed to start anew since I had not learned the basics in a manner consistent with his standards. I eventually decided to take Spanish instead of German so as to avoid any further ridicule of my efforts.

We are often quite haughty in our considerations of anyone attempting to learn a language, particularly our own. We are more likely to note what they can’t do rather than what they have mastered. We lose patience and then wonder why they choose to revert to whatever tongue they learned as an infant. We sometimes don’t consider that it becomes far too hard to continually feel like a fool.

We have many different cultures and ethnicities in the United States today. While English is indeed the predominant language, we should be more than willing to help those who are still learning its nuances. Anyone who even attempts to become bilingual is to be applauded, and those who are struggling should be patiently encouraged. It takes time and great effort to become proficient in anything. Learning a new language is commendable and worthy of pursuit without fear of ridicule. Being able to talk with one another leads to understanding and a realization that when all is said and done we are all pretty much alike.


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