I am not bilingual

Ever since I was a little girl I have been fascinated by language. You would think this might translate to me having an excellent grasp on my own, but no cigar. I remember walking through the J section of the library straight back to the language section. I would pull book after book off the shelf and the wander to the checkout. Once home I would sit and pour over the pictures. Occasionally trying to pronounce unfathomable words with characters I had never seen before. When I grew out of the J section I started checking out audiotapes (yes, actual tapes, although eventually CDs) of various languages: Arabic, Russian, Italian, Hebrew, Japaneses, etc. The world was my oyster and I wanted to hear it all.

In primary & secondary school I began my more formal study of a second language in the form of Spanish. During my first years of study we mainly learned the basics ie vocab: colors, numbers, animals and themed units (travel, rainforest etc). Why so basic? Well for the first two years we only met once every 6 school days and the following two years we only had it for about seven weeks of the school  year (exploratory class). To this day I’ll still say ‘caballo caballo caballo‘ in the same manner our Argentinian teacher would. She had this toy horse that would ‘gallop’ as she repeated the phrase. Once translated it seems mad that I do this. Who walks around saying ‘horse horse horse’. Oh well, c’est la vie.

I survived my first years of training and eventually hit high school. Spanish was no longer required but languages still were a fascination so I signed up. I also had some vague notion that colleges wanted you to have some sort of experience and if you didn’t have it going in then you’d have it by the time you left. College language courses would be about 1000x harder. Prepping in high school was an obvious choice. Then there was the fact that in our third year we take a week long field trip to Spain. I wasn’t going to miss that.

Here is where it really started getting tricky. In case you didn’t know, the English language makes little to no sense. Especially when compared to other languages. It’s a hodge-podge of several languages all shoved together to make a whole. Apparently no one took a leaf from Doctor Frankenstein’s book. If they had, they’d remember grabbing bits and pieces and throwing them together does not a man make. Now I know this is taking the argument towards the ridiculous, but I’m a creative, I’m using my license. Also, hyperbole.

The more I look at other languages the more I see that comparatively English can be quite tricky. For starters the word order is different. Please note, this isn’t applied to every language in the world – just the ones that I’ve perused on a deeper level than passive listening. In Latin based languages (italian, french, spanish etc) the word order is Verb – Subject – Object. Adjectives follow the noun, verbs are conjugated as a whole to agree with the subject. So many differences! However, they all follow a set or marginally followed rules. You can claim that English does too, but the ‘i before e except after c’ rule is broken more than it’s followed. Weird right?

Once I graduated high school I didn’t have much reason to keep up my limited Spanish. Although I kept the theories and general rules in my head (there are 6 verb forms, adjectives swap their ending to be gender specific, start sentences with verbs and go from there, etc) I forgot the many of the specifics (leer ‘to read’ or libro ‘book’). This partial reset both helped and hurt when it came time to learn Italian for my semester abroad. I was at an advantage because the theory still existed, all I had to do was load new verb endings and learn different vocab. However, as I said, it was a partial reset. Every now and then a Spanish word would creep in and I wouldn’t catch that it was wrong. Fun times. Italian eventually became dominate of the two. I remember I even had a dream in Italian while I was away, that was a magical experience.

Now, years later, if I’m called to recall either it’s a hot mess. At work last summer there was a Hispanic couple who were trying to find the right words for what they wanted. Eventually my mind came up with an option but by that time we had figured it out through gestures etc. Good thing too. After the fact I was talking to one of my sisters and as I recounted the tale I used my words. She is a certified Spanish teacher although she teaches social studies. As I was talking she just started shaking her head. Oh I’d come up with the correct word alright. Only it was in Italian and I couldn’t tell the difference.

Since then I’ve put aside any thoughts of having casual conversations without a refresher in vocab. I still have my fascination with languages though. However I keep it to myself a bit more. As I fall asleep at night I now have added two books into my rotation of options. Now, along side of Merlin and the Dragons and The Legend of Sleep Hollow, is The House of Usher (in Italian) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in Russian). Truly my world is an odd one.

Funnily enough last week I was listening to a Spanish radio station. It was in the middle of the news section. The announcer was talking fast. At first I tried translating words individually. Then I remembered that was stupid. For starters in any translation its not a straight word-for-word swap. Secondly I don’t actually understand much Spanish. However, pushing that defeatist attitude aside I started listening to sentences as a whole. Not as individual pieces. A narrative began to unfold. She kept mentioning ’90’, ‘not permitted’ and ‘California’ (those last two more than once). In the end I decided she was talking about the measles uprising. Like I said, I am not bilingual…but its fun to pretend.

Enough rambling for now. Until next time
~ Q