As many women grow older, they fear becoming their mothers. They see it in little things they say or in mannerisms they have seemed to pick up without noticing. It sneaks up on them like a predator, waiting to deliver the fatal blow when they realize that they’ve just made the same yukky face that they used to hate on their mothers’ faces.
Whew! Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that! I know I’m saved from that fate because it’s been clear to me for a long time that I am the female incarnation of my father, right down to the way my feet twitch when I’m bored or relaxed. This realization came to me hard, like a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick, one day many years ago in grad school.
I had jerry-rigged created a solution for a broken wheel on a leg of our wire kitchen cart so it wouldn’t tip over anymore. I went in search of my roommates so I could show them what I had done and instruct them on how to replicate the procedure if it should fail when I was not around. I saw their quizzical looks, but I still turned around and beckoned to them to follow me to the kitchen so they could see. Then I stopped dead in my tracks as I got a mental image of myself. If I had been 50 years older and a man, I would have looked exactly like my father at that moment.
My father could fix just about anything, but it wasn’t always an elegant fix. It didn’t make him any less pleased with himself, however, and he liked to share his successes. Whenever he finished a repair on one of our cars, for example, he would come to find whoever was handy and insist that we come out to the garage to see what had been done. I lost count of the frayed fan belts, rusty connector pipes, and bent screws I had to marvel at as he listed the various catastrophes that would have happened if he hadn’t found the offending part.
After I noticed both the shared ability to inelegantly fix things and the urge to brag about it, I started to see more similarities: the foot shake, the wanderlust, the intolerance of bullshit. These past few weeks, I’ve taken yet another step towards turning into my father (Not literally. There will be no surgery, thank you).
I once asked him what the time was. “Il est huit o’clock,” he replied. No one batted an eye. We were all so used to his peculiar mixing of languages that this seemed like a perfectly normal thing. Start in French and finish in English. When he was angry, he would usually start in English and finish in Portuguese. This may be one of the reasons why Portuguese curses still feel as emotionally satisfying to me as English curses do. When he was happy, more Italian would creep into his speech. He associated his Italian-speaking days with singing and joyful exclamations of beauty.
A few weeks ago, when asked what my lunch order would be, I responded “Je voudrais une omelette com queijo.” For those of you who may be wondering, I managed switch languages mid-stream, asking for the omelette in French, but the cheese in Portuguese. About three seconds after I uttered this, I suddenly realized my mistake and blurted out, “AVEC! Avec FROMAGE! Pardon!” I’m not sure if the waitress laughed at my mistake or how excitable I’d become at conveying the fact that I did, in fact, know how to say “with cheese” in her language, but had simply forgotten it momentarily.
This was not the only time my brain had insisted on messing with me. I also often had to stop myself from using the Turkish word for ‘please’ (lütfen) instead of s’il-vous plaît. It has been a long time since I’ve spoken Turkish or Portuguese on a regular basis, but I was not surprised that they were dusting themselves off and wanting to come out and play. It did, though, startle me to see how often my brain would tell me the French word and my mouth would decide to go in another direction and do a little ad-libbing.
As many other Americans did, I started learning French in 8th grade. Well, technically I started earlier because I kept stealing my older sister’s textbook to get a head start because I could barely stand to wait until 8th grade to be able to say the beautiful, exotic phrases of another language. I did well in my French classes all through middle and high school. By the end, we were quite good; we could read Victor Hugo, memorize and recite Baudelaire, and create fun, snarky, and even poetic chain stories in groups.
In college, I took a French composition class and wrote essays every other week. I met my first boyfriend at French club, which met every Friday at the campus pub. We’d speak slow, measured, practiced French for about an hour or two, then give up and switch to English for another hour, and then head back to my off-campus apartment and watch French movies. I still get a little choked up when I think of the tragic Jean de Florette.
This background with French has made it much easier to continue practicing by means of reading newspapers or short stories, but for as much as I can understand of written French, I felt lost when I was faced with speaking and understanding every day conversational French. I never learned ‘transactional’ French in anything other than an abstract, theoretical situation. To be perfectly honest, it always seemed a little unreal that people actually spoke this lovely language that I was studying.
On the other hand, I learned Turkish by throwing myself into the deepest end of the pool that I could find. On my first day in Istanbul, I knew how to say ‘Hello’ (Merhaba) and ‘Thank you’ (Teşekkur ederim). Eventually, I learned to understand things like “She’ll never know we’re cheating!” and to say, “Please don’t take the long, expensive way home just because I’m a foreigner.” I could converse, make small talk, and eavesdrop on buses. Reading the newspaper was a slow, laborious affair, so I stuck to the television news. It was as far from my French-learning experience as I could have imagined. Some words still come as a knee-jerk reaction in a foreign-language situation.
Portuguese landed somewhere in the middle, since I had heard it quite a bit (but not all the time) while I was growing up, I studied it in college, and then I spoke it in daily life for two years. It’s no wonder it kept popping out of my mouth, unbidden, when I finally had a chance to use French in real-life, very non-hypothetical situations. After English, it’s the language that feels most comfortable on my tongue, and so, wanting to be comfortable but knowing I had to speak in a language other than my native one, I asked for omelettes ‘com queijo’ for lunch.
I don’t resist this transformation into my father the way I would avoid turning into my mother, if for no other reason than because he always had a better sense of humor about his linguistic foibles. We teased him about his unique pronunciation or how we never quite knew what language he’d launch into next, and he’d sit at his end of the table, nodding and smirking. It was pretty funny after all. And I’d take a little linguistic confusion over the yukky face any day!
What are some of your language-learning experiences?*Once upon a time, there was a little girl Who was hanging from a little window. A policeman who was passing said, “What are you doing here, little girl”?