"I'm going to be erotic because of you."
Many people in this world are not just bilingual, but polylingual. I’ve read that one of the characteristics of apt language learners is the ability to conceptualize each language as a separate lingual entity. If this were the only characteristic of effective language learners, I would be helpless. I’ve always been well tied to the written and spoken word. I had a childhood of voracious reading, dramatic journaling, and ambitious authoring of tales. I tried to teach myself Spanish at the age of eight and French at the age of fourteen. I was also a sucker for accents and had a fantasy that I’d spend a summer in Britain and return with a posh accent. None of these hopes/attempts really panned out, but when I finally began taking Spanish classes, I found great fulfillment. I loved swirling the words around in my mouth and sprinkling them among English conversation. The sprinkling was the problem. Because when I gained foreign words, first from Spanish and then from Czech, Chinese, and others, I conceptualized them as an expansion of my lingual platform. The words were like a further advanced English vocabulary in my mind. As I learned foreign words with Greek Latin roots, I often also learned further English vocabulary (example: didactic, diverting); however, I still lounged within the comfort of English.
As such, whenever travelling to other countries, my brain has had two functions: English and Other. This has led to the mixing of Spanish, Chinese, and Czech. Often I’ll prefer one particular word or phrase and set that to default. After studying Czech, Spanish and Chinese got pushed aside, so last year when I visited Mallorca (island off the coast of Spain) or when I had lunch with my Chinese-speaking friends, I was rendered speechless. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say or that the words weren’t there somewhere, but there are moments as a foreigner when you’re unable to join in conversation in a timely manner due to indecision about which language to speak.
Before I arrived in Spain for “spring” holiday, my dear friend Audra joked about how I’d be fluent before I left. I arrived on a Friday. Saturday night was a flat party, and four Spaniards came. They promptly asked about my level of Spanish, and I copped out. My brain wasn’t yet able to suppress the instinct to speak in Czech. Sunday morning, I went to church. The songs and service were in Spanish. The service was preached by an American who’s been in Spain many years. His wife translated. During the service, I began to recall some verbs and grammar forms.
The morning was a good dose of Spanish and was followed by a delicious lunch hosted by a Spanish family from the church. Along with empanadas, jamon, and paella was a healthy dose of Spanish. At the end of the meal, the father—one of the pastors of the church—addressed me specifically with some questions. I managed to eek out some Spanish, and I was assured of his infinite patience.
This is a tale like many others during the week. Those who were patient enough with me managed to get some Spanish. Due to the many cognates between English and Spanish (both true and false), it’s not very difficult to understand Spanish, but production is always the weak point. My points of weakness were obvious, for I managed to impress my tour guide (ie Audra’s friend who studied humanities and was rented out as my friend and guide for the day) by merely understanding when a museum attendant asked in Spanish how long I was staying in the city and I responded “una semana.”
When Thursday finally rolled around, my brain had finally begun subverting some—some—Czech words. I was effectively switching my Czech verbs for Spanish ones, but I still had a terrible tendency to use Czech conjunctions and use the Czech shortened form of yes (which is no). These were annoying mistakes, because many of these short Czech words mean something completely different in Spanish. Thursday afternoon I met up with Nicole (USA), Miguel (Peru), and Allann (Brazil). The conversation stayed mostly in English until Allann left—then Spanish ruled the day. Both Miguel and Nicole are patient, so I slowly—but definitely surely—began to produce the most Spanish I have ever spoken in my entire life. I think the coffee and chocolate in the churreria where we sat helped loosen my tongue. Later I was introduced to more of their colleagues of sorts and Spanish reigned.
This is the part where you start to question, “How long did you study Spanish, Charity?”
Three years in high school—with Audra in fact. So, it’s been many years since then, and I can’t remember the conjugations for the myriad of past and future tenses. Nor did I remember the subjuntivo or when it’s used. But the fact of the matter is that these things don’t much matter when you’re standing with someone who wants information from you and doesn’t speak a lick of English. At that point, you speak whatever you can and use whatever means possible to communicate. This is what needs to come across in high school Spanish classes. I wish I’d realized it before I moved to Europe.
Moreover, there is such great joy to be found in multilingualism. No, this isn’t a wow-it-feels-so-good-to-have-knowledge moment: I’m talking about the blunders. For example, on Friday, I went with a mixture of people from the Spanish church to a Chinese restaurant. The Spanish spoken by the servers was nearly impossible to understand. As we ate our meal, I stopped, saying “Hey, don’t they have chopsticks here?”
“Yeah, but you have to ask for them.”
“Do you think he speaks Chinese? I’m going to ask him in Chinese.”
When the waiter returned, I (think that I) said, “Discúlpeme, Wǒ yào kuàizi.” Which, in a Spanish-Chinese mixture is “Excuse me, I want chopsticks.” He lit up and then replied to me in (insert your guess as to the language he spoke). I looked at him dumbfounded. A couple minutes later I was eating with my chopsticks. He had had his day cheered and I had chopsticks; then I rethought the moment.
“You guys, I think I might have said ‘I am chopsticks’ rather than ‘I want chopsticks’!”
You see, I am quite accustomed to beginning Chinese sentences with “I am” . . . Either way, I made his day, just as Antonio had made mine earlier that week. We had been walking through a magnificent museum in Merida. Not only are there Roman antiquities, but the building was designed in a beautiful way that perfectly suited and enhanced the aura of the Roman artifacts. At this point, it was about three or four in the afternoon, and I’d been with Antonio since 7:45 AM.
“I’m going to be erotic because of you,” I suddenly heard Antonio say.
I smirked and moved a bit further away before nonchalantly asking, “Why do you say that?”
“You know—you Americans pronounce your r’s in a rhotic way; whereas Brits don’t pronounce the r’s, but I’ve spent so much time with you that I’m going to become rhotic.”
I nodded along the whole time, but I couldn’t keep the humour of it to myself, so I told him, “At first I thought you said ‘erotic.’” I didn’t have to say any more. He turned away and blushed with a laugh.
Do you see the kinds of fun you can have with foreign languages? So, whether you are chopsticks, make people rhotic, or are somewhere in between, I encourage you to reexamine your linguistic goals and take the plunge.