Greetings, WordPress friends! It’s been three weeks since I posted here and my excuse is, I’ve been sick. I’d tell you why, but I don’t know. It’s something gastrointestinal, and I’m about to embark on the rounds of visits to specialists and no telling what kind of evil procedures. So, more later.
Meanwhile, I have of course been reading up a storm and watching a lot of National Geographic on TV, so I have all sorts of fodder for Reading with Fakename and Fakename’s Animal Planet. This is more generic than that, it’s about language.
Not for the first time, I’ve been musing about how provincial we in the U.S. must seem, since the majority of us speak only one language–English–and our ability to do that adequately is often in doubt. An increasing percentage of the U.S. population, however, is Hispanic, and they are generally bilingual. Not always, though. Maybe 40 years ago, the “English first” movement held sway and Hispanic children were not allowed to speak their native language in school. This led to some awkward situations, where children were fully “assimilated” in school, but couldn’t understand a word being said to them at home. We had already done that to native Americans, so we’d had plenty of practice.
I’d say that almost nothing is more soul-killing than taking away a person’s language.
That said, there is good reason for immigrants to learn English. It’s the language of business, of aviation, and in many cases, of science (unless you count Latin). It’s hard to thrive in a country where you don’t speak the prevalent language. You end up being confined in sort of language ghettos, and surviving on menial jobs that don’t require much public interaction. You miss a lot–jokes, pop culture references, etc.
I only speak one language–English, with the aforementioned caveat about whether my English is adequate or not. It isn’t that I didn’t try. I took French in high school. I wanted to take Latin, because all my friends were, but my mother flatly refused to allow me. She thought playing the piano and speaking French were the epitome of culture. Ergo, I took French.
When I graduated from college, I went to Paris. I brushed up on my French beforehand. I bought a copy of Albert Camus “The Stranger” in French. I packed an English/French dictionary. The first time I tried to use my French was in a shop dedicated to selling chickens (I think there’s a name for that…) and the shopkeeper did a dramatic eye roll and immediately began speaking English to me. I later learned that in the countryside, the French are more appreciative of your feeble attempts to speak their language, and are glad that you’re trying–but not in Paris. Those people are hard-core.
In college, I took German. Much easier. So my next attempt at speaking a foreign language in another country was in the former Yugoslavia. My friend Art and I were driving endlessly somewhere in the Balkan mountains, lost, starving, and running out of gas. We picked up a hitchhiker–the first human being we’d seen in ages–and he understood my pidgin German. With a big smile, he directed us to a town called Mitrovica, where we dropped him off at the gas station and he melted into space after pointing out a restaurant nearby.
After getting gas, we repaired to the restaurant where there were a lot of Muslim men concealing themselves behind newspapers, and the only sound was from the overhead ceiling fans. We were not served, or acknowledged. Dense as we were, a feeling of unease set in and we hightailed it out of Mitrovica and the whole of Yugoslavia. It turns out, in the hierarchy of human need, gas is more important than food.
I later learned two things. First, the reason our hitchhiker understood German was that after WWII, the Germans virtually kidnapped and enslaved people from the Balkans in order to rebuild Germany. They spoke German, and hated Germans with a blinding passion. Second, we were in one of the most dangerous parts of the world without knowing it. Today, Mitrovica is part of Kosovo.
Art and I learned one very important lesson. Wherever we went, we said, “We’re Americans”. I’m not sure how well that would work today.
In the reading department, I’m on a kick of reading Kate Atkinson. I first read her latest novel “Life After Life” and just finished “Started Early, Took My Dog” (the title of which is from a poem by Emily Dickinson). Kate is either British or Scottish, but that wouldn’t matter much would it? There are so many references I don’t get (British TV shows) and words, just for example, the parts of a motor vehicle. (See? In the U.S., we don’t say “motor vehicle” anyway.) There are boots and bonnets and car parks, lorries and trams. There are mysterious foods (which are probably something like “peanut butter”).
So you just have to limp along, divided by a common language. Atkinson is so brilliant, it’s worth it. In “Started Early…” there is an aging actress in the early stages of dementia, and Atkinson’s description of it is heartbreaking. “Tilly” keeps losing words. She wants a cup of tea, but can’t remember the name of the thing you boil the water in. Is it a…kitten?
Language is who we are.