(I’ve been trying to figure out where this is going for months…okay, that makes it sound like I’ve been at it day and night, which isn’t really true. But I am tired of tinkering with this first half and so I’ll just post it so I can finally move onto the rest.)
When people ask me how many languages I know, I always say “One – just English.” I have been fortunate enough to have studied and learned a lot about other languages, but I never feel that I truly know languages other than English. Our native tongues always feel like home, and while we can learn to be comfortable in other houses, towns, even countries, nothing every quite feels like home. I can speak other languages to varying degrees, and I’ve learned about even more languages beyond that, but do I really know another language? Does that question even have an answer? Can I know a language even without being perfect in the grammar and vocabulary? I don’t have the answers for the moment, but I’ve been wanting to start learning another language (methinks it’s going to be Arabic) and so I’ve been reflecting on the languages that have been important to me over the years.
The first language I studied was French. The sounds of that language were so different and felt so strange in my mouth, but they sounded so smooth and sophisticated. There are vowels in French that we don’t have in English that require us to purse our lips, as if we are constantly about to kiss someone or always holding a lit cigarette in our lips: the /ü/ in “tu” and “jusqu’a” and “une,” or the /ö/ in “jeune.” It made switching back to English feel like moving from a featherbed to a wooden plank. The delicate French vowels made English sound so harsh and cold.
It made me wonder what English would sound like if I didn’t understand it. Barring severe head trauma (fingers crossed!), I will never know what English sounds like to an outsider, but I still wonder. We seem to have a lot of /sh/ sounds, and of course there is the theta – voiced /δ/as in “the,” and voiceless /θ/as in “think” – that almost no other languages have. Greek is in the elite theta club, but they are sounds that have plagued many a non-native speaker trying to master the pronunciation of my abrupt, guttural, Germanic native English.
Though thoroughly in love with French, I eventually made my way to other Romance languages. I found that studying one Latin-based language made learning others easier. French, Italian, Portuguese – they all like to drop their subjects, put their adjectives after the nouns, use reflexive verbs (that still confound me!), and make their nouns choose a gender. It was amusing to me to say something like, “I hope that I not myself was not broke the leg right!” (“J’espere que je ne me suis pas casse la jambe droit!”)
Of course there were false friends, as there always are. The false friend that betrayed me the most often was the Portuguese word “puxe,” which sounds like “push” but which means “pull,” which will please those with a sense of irony. After slamming my face into many a public door instructing me to “puxe” when in fact I had to pull, I finally came up with a mantra to avoid further bruising. “Puxe means pull!” I would repeat to myself whenever I came up to a door. This worked fine in Portugal, but I had problems the first few times I repeated my mantra when approaching a door back here in the United States. No noses were bruised, but my ego was slightly colored when I would walk up to a door, repeat “Puxe means pull!” and then proceed to pull and keep pulling despite the big sign clearly marked “Push.”
Then I needed a challenge. I moved to Turkey knowing how to say “Hello’ (Merhaba) and “Thank you” (Tesekkur ederim), which were quite useful for my first day or so in Istanbul, but wouldn’t hold me for much longer than that. I needed things like, “Filter coffee, please, not Nescafe,” and “Can you tell me why I keep getting on the wrong bus?” It was time to attend language classes. In the first four weeks, I mostly learned the words for many different types of alcoholic beverages, courtesy of my flask-toting instructor who was never far from the halfway mark of the proverbial bag. I also learned that Turkish was English backwards and that everything depended on word endings that strung along on verbs and nouns like a freight train. “Dukkana gidiyorum” would transliterate into “store to go –ing am I.” To make matters worse, the progressive suffix would come in two different forms depending on the vowel in the verb stem. That’s right, folks: vowel harmony! Sometimes it was just a two-option harmony, but other times, such as with the possessive marker, there would be 4-option harmony: the suffix that means “my” was realized as either –im, um, Im, or üm. Speaking of possession, markers were put on both the possessed and the possessor. Oh, and there’s consonant harmony as well. The [t] in “gitmek” becomes the[d] in “gidiyor” intervocalically or in front of a voiced consonant.
Like in French, there were times when you barely had to move your mouth. My friend, Funda, used to say “three hundred and thirty three” instead of “cheese” when having her picture taken. Why? In Turkish, that number is “üς yüz otuz üς”. Just try saying that without looking like Marilyn Monroe!
The last language that has figured in any major way in my life was American Sign Language. I have always loved making and doing things with my hands: knitting, cooking, playing piano, wrapping presents, and even finger painting. I must have gotten that – along with my talent and interest in languages – from my father, who was both polyglot and mechanic. The language of ASL perfectly merged these two loves of mine. I absolutely fell in love with the fact that twisting, clenching, tapping, waving, folding, curving my hands created meaning and did so in such a beautiful way. I would tie my fingers into knots trying to increase the speed of my fingerspelling and practice in the mirror to make sure my movements were fluid, not too big (don’t want to shout!) but not too small (who likes a low-talker?). I loved how subtle movements, even without changing the shape on the hand, could create the difference between, for example, “grandmother” and “vomit”, or “thirsty” and “horny.” I also was so impressed how emotion or extra dimensions of meaning were conveyed with movement. The sign for friends could be altered to signify “acquaintances” (alternately tapping index fingers), “friends” (alternately hooking index fingers) and “close friends” (hooking index fingers and not letting go). The closer the friendship, the harder you would clench those hooked fingers together. The closeness was literal. It was beautifully symbolic.
My other studies led me to brief forays in Italian, German, Latin, not to mention the countless languages I learned select rules for during my linguistic studies. (Go ahead, ask me about tones and syllabic nasal consonants in Luganda! I dare ya!) Throughout it all, I wondered how it was changing me, this constant attention to other languages. Okay, I’ll occasionally throw in a Turkish hedging technique (şey, yani) and I apparently believe that lights and computers are now open or closed rather than on or off, but apart from that, did my relationship to English or thought change?
That discussion has to wait until Part Two, Deux, Dois, Due, Zwei, Iki…