Sunday, November 1, 2009

DELAYED BY FROG: speaking in tongues

People often ask me why I travel where I do. Mainly to Europe and Latin America. The answer is really quite simple. I go where I do because I speak the language. Though I cursed it at the time, it helped that I had to take five language exams for my would-be doctorate in comparative literature. French, Italian, Spanish, a smattering of German. At one time I tried to learn Hebrew.

And, a while ago, I could get by in Russian. I can't explain why I have bothered to learn so many languages except to say that I like to talk to people and I've found that when I'm on the road it is easier to talk with others if you speak their language, rather than expecting them to speak yours.

At times I worry that I am like that schizophrenic Louis Wolfson whom Paul Auster discusses in his brilliant essay, "New York Babel." Wolfson spoke many many languages, but he could not bear the sound of English which was his mother tongue and did everything he could to avoid it. I believe he actually wrote or spoke several languages simultanously but not English. However I think my case is more benign. Since I can remember I've loved languages. I love to hear them, read them, speak them. I'd have to say that one of my greatest pleasures is to see a work of mine translated into another language.

For example this blog is now in fifteen languages. I find that utterly amazing. I have to thank my mother at least in part for this. She had a deep, and frustrated, desire to see the world, and she was adamant when I was in grade school that foreign languages be available in the public schools in Illinois where we lived. And while she waged her battle, which she eventually won, I was sent to study French with Monsieur la Tarte.

Monsieur La Tarte was an old French man who for some reason lived alone in a house apartment in Highland Park where I grew up. He seemed sad to me so I always felt rather badly when I didn't study. I tried my best. I used to go to his house once a week on my way home from school. I'd sit at a wooden table across from this old man who also suffered from numerous facial ticks, saying over and over again, "Je suis une jeune fille." "Je veux un verre d"eau." And so on.

Monsieur La Tarte's poor head twitching back and forth as I tried to follow along. A few years later my mother scooped me up after school and drove me to the passport office in downtown Chicago.

As we waited for our passports, a woman, dressed like a gestapo officer, marched up and down the room, shouting orders. Though I was terrified, my mother found this very funny. Years later I understand that it was her thirst for travel and the world, and her sense of humor, that enabled her to laugh at this moment. She had decided that we were going on the grand tour of Europe. Me and my mother along with her friend, Marion Moses and her daughter Linda. Linda and I were reluctant travelers.

I had other things I wanted to do that summer and Linda was in love with George and all she did was write him letters and wait for his at each hotel. But, the point of all of this is to say that I spoke French in France. I was fifteen years old and found myself negotiating taxis and tables in restaurants. One doorman referred to me as Miss America. But I greeted him with proper bonjours, and, as we were leaving, au revoir.

I didn't think much about my love or proficiency in language until my senior year in high school when we were giving numerous aptitude tests in math, English, and languages. The language exam we took was in Kurdish. I never was sure why it was in Kurdish but I think it was not a single word in Kurdish seems to correspond to a similar word in English. At any rate we were given a sheet of Kurdish grammar and vocabulary and given a time to study it. Then we took the exam. I didn't do particularly well in the other aptitude tests, but my language scores were off the charts and my guidance teacher, who until that moment had dismayed at my ever doing anything useful with my life told me to go to school and become an interpreter (something I did consider briefly before I went into comparative literature). She also wanted to have me retested because apparently people who do well in languages should also do well in music and math and math I can definitely say was not a strong point on my SATs.

I seem to be rambling, babeling away here, something I've tried not to do in this blog before, but the fact is that I have over the years studied many languages (At Columbia I took romance philology with poor Mr. Ferguson who was a kind of genius in the dipthonization in Sardo Logudorese and other esoteric romance languages and dialects) and I have traveled to many places.

When people ask me where I learned Spanish, I tell them the truth. I learned on the streets. In the marketplaces and chatting with kids and neighbors. Same more or less with Italian. I think the real secret of learning a language is not to be afraid of making mistakes. I know my tenses are wrong and I probably get the masculine/feminine wrong all the time, but, unless I say something outrageous, I don't really care.

Last year an Italian friend was coming to stay with us, but she was going to be late. She sent me an email whose headline was DELAYED BY FROG. After I recovered from picturing a giant reptile in the middle of the Fiumacino runway, I knew that she had made a language error. But she was a good sport and we laughed about it over some very good red wine. And her English is very very good! I rest my case.


  1. that's probably the trick to learning languages, not worrying too much about getting it perfect, just trying to communicate

  2. I agree! That's what I've come to believe.