FOREIGN LANGUAGES

“Hola,” I say.

“Hola,” says the short man with what appears to be a genuine, warm smile. He wears a baseball cap and holds a leaf blower.

I’m taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. I feel it’s appropriate and respectful to greet landscapers in their own language when I can. Often, the response I get appears to me to be a combination of surprise and delight. But some disagree. My wife, Katie, for instance, thinks the workers may feel insulted when I speak to them in Spanish. Readers are welcome to share their opinions. My children cringe whenever I utter a word of Spanish in ANY context. Granted, I’m not a linguist.

*****

When I was little, I had an excellent opportunity to learn other languages. My father’s clothing store was in a section of North Philadelphia that contained a mixture of Puerto Rican and eastern European immigrants. Though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time there, whenever I was in the store, I witnessed my father navigate fluently between English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. He could also speak passable Polish and German.

My father passionately wanted his children to learn Russian. Only one of his four children inherited his gift and interest, however. My sister not only learned Russian but she achieved college-level proficiency at Spanish and chose to take graduate-level courses in French, Italian and Romanian! The extent of my knowledge of Romanian begins and ends with “blintz.”

I remained oblivious to the babble around me at the store. And my father was not the sort of parent to impose his linguistic hopes on me. My first exposure to foreign language study did not occur until seventh grade when I entered a private school, Friends’ Academy. Most of the students there had commenced studying French in third grade.

To my continuing regret, Friends’ Academy did not offer Spanish at any level because it was deemed “too easy.” Before I could commence French or German or Russian, however, they felt it necessary for me to obtain a foundational understanding of western languages, and it doesn’t get any more foundational than Beginning Latin. For an entire school year such terms as “dative” and “ablative” bounced off me like hail hitting a metal roof. All that stuck with me were: “puer spectat puela,” meaning “boy looks at girl;” and “stultus asinus,” meaning “stupid ass.” The latter characterizes my level of my accomplishment in the subject.

Despite my evident lack of aptitude, Friends’ Academy required continued foreign language study. Recognizing I was too far behind my classmates in French, and that Russian would be impossible (a different alphabet!) they placed me in Beginning German in eighth grade.

To my shock and dismay, I learned a language could have ten or twelve or fifteen ways of saying “the.” Also, nouns can be feminine or masculine.

“Why?” I asked in despair, “is it necessary to complicate simple things?”

Frau Herta Springer was not sympathetic. At the time, I thought of her as an elderly woman though I now realize she was only around fifty. Peering at me through thick glasses, she said, in a clipped Austrian accent: “Deutsch is a precise language. It is not sloppy. And it is not supposed to be easy.”

*****

Frau Springer and I had an awkward relationship for the next five years. She couldn’t understand why I found grammar impenetrable. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was so important. But what she really didn’t understand is why the weakest of her eleven students crushed her in Scrabble when we played in class every other Friday. (It had only taken a couple of weeks for me to graduate from playing my fellow students to taking on Frau Springer).

My secret weapon was a lifetime of play with my mother and aunt. I found words easily, so long as I didn’t have to know what they meant or how to place them in a sentence. Scrabble in German is the same as in English, except that the letter distribution features more S’s, C’s and H’s. She simply could not reconcile my relative genius at the game with my non-comprehension of everything else.

“Was ist los mit dir?” (What is wrong with you?) she asked each time she returned a quiz.

“Ich weis nicht,” (I don’t know) I answered, not quite sure if the ending of “weis” was missing a letter or two.

I never explained to Frau Springer how I came to dominate her. My proficiency at Scrabble was critical when it came to the subjective part of her grading and I didn’t want to risk that by resolving her confusion. At the end of each semester, with my average hovering in the low C’s or worse, she gave me a B.

*****

On the home front, my father found an alternate route to Russian language enthusiasm. This came about through Robert, a classmate of mine who had taken an interest in all things Russian. Starting in ninth grade, he made it known that he read Tolstoy for fun. (Private schools have kids like that. Our German exchange student spent his lunch hours memorizing train schedules). Robert also wore a Russian hat to school each day, its fur flaps protecting his ears even when the temperature topped eighty.

When Robert found out that my father had been born in Russia (Kiev then, as Putin would have it, considered to be part of Russia) he requested the chance to visit our house on Sunday afternoons to engage in Russian conversation. My father was ecstatic. Over the course of about eighteen months, I recall sitting upstairs awkwardly watching football or baseball on television while my father laughed and soaked up the company of Robert in the breakfast room below.

Whatever psychological damage this did to me was rectified, or at least evened out, when we learned that Robert’s father was an ice hockey fanatic with front row tickets to the Flyers’ games. Robert had no interest in sharing his father’s passion for something he thought so ridiculous as sports, so I attended eight or ten hockey games with his delighted dad over the same period.

When Robert’s interest in Russian petered out in favor of a new passion for painting Victorian train stations, (what can I say?) my father was clearly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t work up any interest in learning Russian. And I didn’t foresee how useful and valuable Spanish might be. In the early 1970’s, no one had yet calculated that it could be the majority language in the country by 2030.

*****

As an adult, I’ve had more opportunities to learn Spanish than I ever imagined. First, the kids played soccer under a series of Latin American trainers. Then we bought property in Costa Rica and began to visit there regularly. In addition, my children studied Spanish in school. They tell me they are proficient though I’ve rarely heard them speak.

Accordingly,taking a scattershot approach, I’ve obtained several books and tapes and I sometimes watch Spanish television with English subtitles. Once again or, perhaps, still, my ability to memorize vocabulary words outstrips my limited capacity to place the words in proper order and tense.

Like German, Spanish features a host of ways to say “the” and divides its nouns into masculine and feminine, with all the same grammatical booby-traps. But Spanish has two things going for it: there are tons of cognates. In other words, hospital in Spanish equals hospital in English. Doctor is doctor. Goal is gol, etc.; and, Spanish-speaking people, at least those I’ve encountered through soccer or visiting Costa Rica, are not hung up on precision. When I try to express myself in Spanish, if they can understand from my vocabulary and body language what I’m trying to say, they smile and say: “Su espanol es muy bueno.” (Your Spanish is very good).

I know they are exaggerating. I also know I’d benefit if they were less kind and more rigorous in teaching me. But, at least on some basic level, I’m able to converse in a foreign language. And that’s more than Frau Springer, my father, or I would ever have expected.

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