Sunday, March 02, 2014


Today's question is pretty straightforward.  Unfortunately, it will tarnish my reputation irretrievably in the eyes of thousands of people forever.  Oh, well.  As Lynn Anderson famously sang in 1970, "I never promised you a rose garden."  Here we go:

Do you speak more than one language fluently?  If so, how did you learn it?

Sigh.  The short answer is "No."  I hope you're happy now, Meme Mistress.  Thousands of my former students the world over are disillusioned and prostrate with incredulity.  Allow me to explain.

In my long career as a high school teacher (and one strange year at junior high), I used to, after giving directions, ask in several different languages, "Do you understand?".  A great number of my students used to make the assumption that I spoke all of those languages (French, Spanish, Japanese, Finnish among them), an assumption I did not take special care to disabuse them of.  I know enough French to be able to understand the language, to construct conversation, and to translate written French.  This also amazed and stunned my students, many of whom were only in first- or second-year French.

Additionally, my sons were in Spanish for all four years of their high school careers, attending the same school at which I taught.  I picked up enough Spanish from them and from living in my hometown for my whole life, a city which was home to the highest concentration of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans per capita, second only to New York City.  (Although, it must be noted that most of my Spanish-speaking friends back home spoke Spanglish.)  I could understand some Spanish and because it was so similar in some ways to French, I could translate it, too.  It also helped that I used to read Sesame Street anthologies to the boys, and they were chock full of Spanish vocabulary.  I tend to remember anything I am interested in, no matter how arcane, so Spanish stayed in a brain cubby along with birthstones, anatomy, and the lyrics to "Itchycoo Park" by The Small Faces.

Jared's and Sam's fluency in Spanish translated to a hike in their wages when they sought work in retail. Their ability to act as translator for customers was a desirable skill.  Their Spanish teacher early on was a dear friend of mine, Teresa, who both boys still adore and have vowed to take a bullet for. One of the most entertaining things was when, on car trips or even errands, Jared would translate song lyrics into Spanish, even partially, so that we could sing them that way.  My personal favourite:  El Partido de Crying.

My father was one hundred percent Croatian, first generation American, but because his mother wanted to be an American so badly, she forbid the language to be spoken in the house.  Consequently, he never really learned any, and neither did I.  I'm sorry about that.  I can't pass any of that on to my sons.

Some of my students claimed I didn't speak English because of the words I used and because of my correct pronunciation.  "You're not from around here, are you?" they used to ask.  "No, I'm not," I'd say.  "How did you know?"  They would look so proud, and someone would say, "You don't talk like anyone around here.  You talk different.  You talk proper and stuff.  Where you from then?"  It always killed them when I told them I was from the next town over.  Sometimes I do miss that; they're so easy.

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  1. No, I don't speak a language either, despite three years of high school German. Oddly though, it's only been this year that I really wish I spoke Spanish, because I teach a number of students whose parents are Mexican and I would live to be able to talk to them about their lovable but badly behaved sons! I think I am putting this on my bucket list! Thanks!

  2. Many friends of mine growing up were native Spanish speakers (hmmmm, are you sure Ohio outranks Los Angeles/Southern California for residents of Mexican heritage? I will challenge you on that, madame!)and so I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish as well as taking three years of it in High School. I sure know all the Spanish curse words.

    Can I get by? Yes.
    Can I have a lengthy conversation? No.

    My husband's mother is also a native Spanish speaker and she did the same as your grandmother, forbade any of her kids to learn it. If she had only known what a wonderful thing it would be if he spoke Spanish so fluently!

  3. I'm always curious about this because I feel that, when I was living in the US, my ability to speak a 2nd language fluently was viewed as a sort of party trick that was interesting, but not actually in any way useful or necessary. Over here, I'm the clear minority with a paltry 2 fluent languages - most of the people I work with speak at least 3 languages at a high level of proficiency. I wish our educational system valued - and supported - foreign language education the way other countries do- and from a young age, when language is easiest to learn. Regardless of how people feel about it, Spanish is increasingly the undeniable 2nd language in American culture. I would love to see the US move toward being a multilingual country. It works for the Swiss (most of whom speak German, French, and Italian- with varying degrees of fluency, but at least competently- at minimum) and I refuse to believe they're all smarter than we are. I realize it'll probably never happen because of our country's deep-seated 'English only' prejudices, but a girl can dream, right?

  4. MsC--Oh, I know. In the US we seem to think that everyone in the world should just learn English and make us comfortable. I was part of a special program in elementary school wherein I got French lessons in fifth and sixth grade, then took French in junior high and high school. No place to really use it, though, so a great deal of it is dormant or lost. I love the idea of the US becoming more of a polyglot nation, but we all know better than that.

    Gina--Lorain, OH, per capita, had the highest concentration of Latinos when I was growing up. Most were there to work in the steel mills. Most were Puerto Rican. That may have changed now, but it was true when I lived there.

    Rose--There are so many free podcasts you can download that will help you to learn Spanish. It's not similar to German, sadly, so there won't be transfer, but it isn't a tough language to learn by rote and sound. The grammar is a bit more of a challenge, but if you are talking about conversational Spanish, I think you can pick it up pretty quickly, relatively speaking. Nice to see you here in comments. Snuggle Gracie for me!

  5. I have often said that 8th period class with Jared, Tianna, Mikey, so many, is still my all-time favorite.

  6. Languages are such a mystery to me. I wish that I spoke French, because it's so beautiful. I took 2 years of it in college, and earned myself my first ever F for the effort. Rats.

    I too wish we lived in a culture where language was taught at a much younger age. It would be fabulous and handy to be fluent in Spanish.

  7. J.--Never too late! Spanish isn't terribly hard to pick up. Will you become fluent without a lot of work? Probably not. But if you practice the vocabulary, and if you learn some phrases, you'd be surprised how fast you start understanding it, at least.

    I, too, love French. I use it over at The Tie Report every so often, just for pretentiousness' sake. And I use it in conversation with the cats even though Piper prefers Spanish. LOL.

    Teresa--YAY!! How I love seeing you here! I hope I see you here more often.

    That was a wonderful group of kids, along with the class of 2006, and yes, I'm a little biased.

    You'd be so gratified to know how often Jared and Sam speak of you, and always so glowingly. Nothing but Love for you here at the Dept.

  8. I loved that last part of your post. You definitely had some fun with your students--hehe!

    I had four years of high school French and one year of German because actually taking French in college would have required true skill, which I did not have and that would have been a blow to my GPA. One can take 4 years of high school French in the U.S. and great straight As and still be woefully inept, as in not really be able to speak the language. :-(

    I love French and can read it far better than I can understand it spoken or can speak it myself. I still fondly remember reading Les Miserables (and a few other books) in French.

    I was a hotel desk clerk while in college and I did fairly well at being able to tell the French Canadian guests when the Sunday services were at the local Catholic church but beyond that, I was not much good.

    I love the idea of kids being multilingual and I'm sad that your dad was not able to carry on his own language. I hate the fear of other cultures and languages in our country. Your grandmother was probably reacting to that and trying to protect her son.


  9. Shirley--You give Grandma R an awful lot of credit. I wish that were true. Grandma wanted to be a complete American. She refused to answer my grandfather in Croatian, and his English was and continued to be terrible. She wouldn't talk to him in Croatian. She was very independent and flashy, and she wanted modern things and modern ways.

    Good for you for having some conversational command of the French language! Why didn't we speak some when I was there in VA?

  10. Nance--Well, I didn't know that about your grandmother. I'm sorry for both your father and his father. The grandmother wanting modern things and modern ways was not unique to your immigrant grandmother though. My dad's mom was that way although she was a softer person and I adored her. After a point she wanted nothing "old," so she got new furniture, new dishes, stainless steel flatware, etc. I ended up with her china (nothing of value, except sentimental value), her silverware, several pieces of furniture, and more. At the same time, she also went from baking and cooking to buying frozen meals and store-bought cakes. Marketing at that time did just as good a job as it does today on making the woman of the house think these companies were giving her a break. ;-)

    And regarding conversing in French ... holy (or I should say "Oh Mon Dieu!"). Please don't make that something for me to be anxious about before our next get together. If that "conversation" took place, you'd say something and then I'd be about a minute or two behind you. Trust me, it would not be a fun experience. My French speaking during college was decades ago, not long after my high school French. Today, I'd probably have to hand the French Canadians a printed schedule of the church services. :-(

  11. Shirley--We'd both struggle mightily, let me assure you. Let's forget it, then, or confine it to a bonjour. LOL.

  12. My 1st grade teacher (in upper state N.Y.) thought it would be cool to teach us to count to ten in Spanish. Little did she realize that she had changed my life forever. From day one, it seemed so magical to utter "strange sounds" and discover (later on) that people understood them just as well as English. That influenced my decision to choose Spanish as a foreign language in high school, which, starting in Louisiana, back in those days, was very original, since French was a huge influence there, as well as being the lingua franca worldwide.

    Oddly, I did not major in Spanish in college. Didn't think I could really master it to the point of really good fluency, which was a lot more difficult in those days because people still taught foreign languages in ENGLISH. *sigh* So I got my B.A. in English, which turned out to be more useful initially when I first went to Spain. And the rest is history. It took living in Spain to really bring home how much language is culture, and now an indelible feature of my bilingual life.

    My poor Spanish heritage speaker students struggle with the fact that they are illiterate in a language they can speak and understand. But we have programs and textbooks especially for them to bring them up to speed. The saddest cases are the ones who could have had a stab at being bilingual, but whose parents wanted them to be "100% AMERICAN." And so they got their wish: loads of hispanics who can't say boo in Spanish. But we encourage them to pick up the pieces, too, and "practice with granny." Too bad there was so much xenofobia back then and too many parents who didn't realize that the best gift they could give their children was their language and culture.

    Good for Jared & Sam--- they wisely picked up on a huge career booster these days. (Although maybe not writing songs like El partido de crying, lol.) I bet they would have been fun to have in a class when I taught high school Spanish. I get such a kick out of students who are not afraid to embrace the language and realize how much deeper it goes than "just another subject you have to take."

  13. Ortizzle--I have two nieces who are of Mexican heritage. Neither one can speak Spanish except for certain familial words or "babyfied" Spanish terms (i.e. Titi for aunt), and they have no real interest in doing so. I think other things are at work there, however.

    When I was in high school, the largest minority population was Puerto Ricans. Many of them detested Spanish class and failed it miserably. Other kids would tease them terribly. Esther used to take up for them (she got all A's in everything) and say, "There are plenty of you gringos who fail English." Of course that's true.

    Sam and Jared are fun to have in class until they get control of it. Then they are pure hell. Jared is especially fun when he speaks Spanish because, for some reason, he thinks it requires extreme facial expression and gesticulation. I honestly don't know if he realizes he is doing it.

  14. I had high school Spanish (with a teacher who broke a ruler pleasuring himself while seated behind his desk - although this might be a tale fabricated by my classmates). It was rural North Carolina, and I had really wanted to take Latin instead (it wasn't offered) so you know how much I actually retained. Uno, dos, tres... :)

  15. The Bug--Sigh. I'm sure it was a story made up by a bunch of kids. What the...never mind.

    I wish Latin would still be offered, too. I doubt I would have had the presence of mind to have taken it, but these days, I wish I had some background in it.


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