“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”
This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October. I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from. Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.
Languages. First of all, define “speak.” Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]”? “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation. A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American. The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives. You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work. Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”
So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian. Put it this way: If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred. But hey, I understand that word.
And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from. When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head. Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask. Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.
Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly. The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language. And I understood maybe one word in a hundred. Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine. And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication. Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily. And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).
So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time. However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?). As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters. But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet. Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time. I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.
This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French. I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a huge hit with the French: As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.” And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language. I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.
So…what’s the Girl Thing? Think about it. Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off? Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved: This post is already at about nine hundred words. Now: Imagine being able to do that in four languages. Yeeeeaaaahhhhh. /beatific smile/