My study of foreign languages began inauspiciously with Latin I and II. It’s not that Latin itself was so difficult (I actually rather enjoyed the puzzle of it), but rather that my Latin teacher’s son would poke his head in every day during my class period to get lunch money from his mom. Dazzled by his good looks, I’d promptly lose track of whatever I was working on.
[Editorial aside: In the interest of a clear conscience, I’m going to go ahead and confess publicly, right here, that for a few years, I did something rather underhanded when it came to this guy: I was a basketball manager, and was charged with keeping statistics of shots taken and shots made by the guys during practices and games. However, I often failed to keep close track, because I was too busy watching my true love (who didn’t know I existed, by the way) sprint up and down the court. So…I just credited all of the shots made that I didn’t see to him. So much for useful statistics! But I do think I made his life a little better, and no doubt saved him from having to do a few suicide sprints for missing free throws. He hasn’t thanked me yet – probably because he still doesn’t know that I exist -but I’m sure some day he will.]
Anyway, back to languages. I took French instead of Spanish (but learned an extraordinary number of colorfully vulgar swear phrases in Spanish from an amigo in Trig class), and then moved to Austria knowing only two words of German: danke, and schwimmflossen. You’d be surprised how hard it is to work ‘swim flipper’ into everyday conversation.
On one memorable occasion, I was with a couple of male Austrian friends at a ball in Vienna, and we were speaking to the American ambassador. He asked about someone we knew, and I replied that the man in question was at a different ball, across town. One of my Austrian friends then chimed in, helpfully, “Yes, Sir, everyone is balling tonight!”
We had a conversation in the cab on the way home about how not every word can be used as a verb.
In college, I studied in Germany and Italy, and then, because of my enormous skill with European languages, moved to SouthEast Asia where none of them are spoken.
Malaysia, where I lived briefly, had only three television channels at the time. One was “news “– basically a verbatim recitation of everything the Prime Minister said that day — and one was bizarre Chinese soap operas, with titles like Love by the River in the Happy Valley Where the Green Grass Grows. The third was geared towards Kuala Lumpur’s Indian population, and was in Hindi.
The one thing I picked up in Malaysia is that to make a plural in Malay, you simply repeat the word. Thus, kucing (cat) becomes kucing-kucing (cats). You’d be surprised how hard it is to work “cats” into everyday conversation.
From there, it was on to Singapore, where the official language is English — but a very specific kind of English, referred to by people in the know (which now includes you; you’re welcome!) as Singlish. Singlish is a language unto itself; a delightful hybrid of Chinese-influenced slang and English picked up from episodes of Friends.
Easy, right? It took awhile to get the hang of it, but after being there some months, there was great pleasure to be found in watching other Westerners scratch their heads wondering which dialect of Chinese was being spoken, before saying, helpfully (read: smugly), “He’s actually speaking English.”
Even after I became proficient in understanding Singlish, making myself understood remained a challenge. For example, my friend Cindy and I used to go to Kenny Rogers Roasters for a chicken lunch every once in awhile. (You forgot about The Gambler owning a chain of chicken joints? The cornbread was delicious, and you were guaranteed to hear Islands in the Stream at every meal). I’d be in near-hysterics by the time we finished ordering, because requesting certain parts of the chicken meant performing elaborate, anatomically-specific charades.
“I’d like a breast, please,” I’d say, giving myself a monthly exam while looking hopefully at the teenaged boy behind the counter. “And a wing,” I’d say, flapping my arm like Uncle Cleetus doing the Cotton Eyed Joe.
The point of all this is, after living in seven countries around the world, my message to you is: Thank the Lord every day that you are a native English speaker. While children across the globe are struggling to learn why the plural of goose is geese but the plural of mouse is mice, you’ve moved on to higher level communication, like texting.
It’s never too late to learn another language, by the way, and there are plenty of studies to show that doing so opens up new pathways in your brain and helps you think creatively. Which means, it may not be too late for me to go back and fill in all that Latin that I missed….The stats books, though? Sorry, Coach!