A Meilleur Mañana

Facing my inquisitor, I try to answer, but my throat closes, choking off the words.  Skilled in interrogation techniques, he repeats his question. Comment allez-vous?, he enquires, smiling pleasantly enough, if somewhat confusedly. Me being stumped by such a simple question has clearly stumped him. His thought process seems obvious: If she doesn’t know any French, why didn’t she sign up for the Beginners’ class? If she does know some, why doesn’t she speak?

Ah, the incomplete impossibility of explaining  — in French, at least — that my last French instruction was a 1984 class in Saskatoon; the last before that, 15 years earlier in an Alberta high school. All in all, I had seven years of French instruction: does that make me a beginner? Living out West, I never learned to parler: will my conversational ineptitude let me start anywhere other than as a beginner? Although it surely would have been easier to join the neophytes, I have braved the dreaded placement exam to answer those questions.

First, however, I must try to answer his question. This is ridiculous: surely bien will work. I start to speak but the voice in my head says, That’s Spanish, dummy! I am pulled up short this time not by my incapacity in French, but by my capacity in Spanish.

In the last 10 years, I have taken oodles of Spanish classes, studied one-on-one in Guatemala, and worked with a tutor here in Ottawa. Occasional trips to and through Québec have confirmed Spanish as my second language. Spoken to in French, my subconscious naturally throws Spanish into the breach.  Gritting my teeth, I can just barely scoop up odd bits of French vocabulary from a sea of other unused high-school learnings, trigonometric functions bobbing along next to the periodic table. Constructing a grammatical response is next to impossible; providing a timely response is out of the question.

Stumbling through the rest of a placement exam as painful for the examiner as for me, I am, remarkably, assigned to the Intermediate class. We are an oddly assorted lot: 20-somethings following the standard course sequence, their book learning and conversational capacity more or less in sync; street-taught talkers who have the ear but not the grammar; old fogies like me (well, none others quite as old) with bits, pieces, and idiosyncratic gaps. On our own, none of us could pass both an oral and written test at this level; together, we know it all. Individually, we are motivated students with the capacity to do well; collectively, our disparate needs make us the sort of class that gives instructors fits.

Classes are the placement exam writ long. I cavalierly jettison pronouns (often omitted in Spanish), confidently mis-pronounce words (based on Spanish phonetics), and use both languages to form compound numbers. Indeed, rogue Spanish vocabulary pops up throughout my speech and writing. I can’t be sure whether what my subconscious filing system spits out is Spanish or French or both. Like bien, it all sounds right — and wrong–to me.

Yet the language wars have worse to inflict. Conversing with my Spanish tutor, I find that French is infiltrating that bastion. Quel horreur! ¿Que pasa? My husband speaks to my distress: think how fine it will be to speak three languages. In the small hours of the morning, my vision of the future is a little darker: a hopelessly muddled Spanish, and still no French.  Lying there, I wonder whether the confusion will extend even to English, my mother tongue, in the linguistic equivalent of collateral damage. Unreasonable? Perhaps, but I’ve seen something like it before.

My 1950s Edmonton neighbourhood was a new home for a family of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. The parents struggled to learn enough heavily accented English to work in their professional fields. The older children adapted quickly, easily adding idiomatic English to their Hungarian base.  The problem arose with Baby, who heard English and Hungarian from all family members, without any pattern. He was late to start talking and, when he did, no one understood him. He had fused the grammar and vocabulary of two exceedingly different languages into one, tidy, incomprehensible whole: an impressive, if misguided, effort. I think I know how he felt.

It was their family doctor who laid down the law: There was to be only one language spoken in the home, until Baby learned to speak so that others could understand him. Hungarian or English — the doctor didn’t care — but only one.

It sounds a swell idea to me. It’s been a few years since my latest classroom experience and I haven’t much progress — in French or Spanish — to show for it. So I have a proposal, based on medical advice, but recognizing that picking just one language isn’t practical.  Mondays and Thursdays, everyone speaks French. Tuesdays and Fridays, English. Wednesdays and Saturdays, Spanish. Sundays — your choice. Go with Hungarian, if you like. It would just be for a little while, until I can untangle this mess in my head. I figure the balance of the decade should do it. Given that I travel a fair bit, I think we’d better be on the safe side, and make this a continent-wide protocol. What do you say? Bueno?  Or should that be bon?


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14 Responses to A Meilleur Mañana

  1. Your musings raised the memory of my own languages meld I haven’t thought about in 40 years. I spent a lot of my own money at Berlitz to learn some French which showed my willingness to take on two years, two nights a week in the free government program in the 70s. I had “some” Spanish which had lingered like mold in the cold, only to warm up and infect my brain when French was required of me — out came the Spanish verbs and nouns, surprisingly fresh after long-forgotten college classes.

    My Spanish teacher was more memorable than her class, I had thought. She had a quirky gait as she kinda stumped across the campus which we understood once informed she had no toes, lost to frostbite. Beginning to learn French in the cold Ottawa winter, my toes — in fashionable but unforgiving boots — remembered hers, then the Spanish she had drilled into me.

    But — they are both romance languages. We are bound to bind them together, no?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      While in the very early stages of studying Spanish, I attended group lessons at the University of Calgary. At breaks, the other middle-aged people stood around and wondered at how much French they still knew from long-gone school days – they were catching themselves replying ‘Oui’ to questions in Spanish, and so on. Another friend reports that her husband came away from a few weeks of Spanish instruction without any appreciable Spanish, but ‘with his German much refreshed’. I figure our second languages (at least those acquired as adults), reside in more or less one part of our brains. And we should all have acquired those languages before we were 12, to have any hope at all. I continue to be amazed and impressed by immigrants who get over this hurdle.

  2. I suspect we each would be fluent if our livelihoods depended on it. When I was only a few years out of my intense French classes, I suddenly heard French coming out of my mouth — to make a sale at a show.

    Now, I say, “Je peu parler un peu — mais — je comprends — rien.” My stock phrase that gets me a laugh, and, off the hook.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Hey! I have something similar: Je parle un peu le francais seulement – et je comprends moins que je parle. I think you’re right – immersion and the need to earn a living in another language are incredible drivers.

  3. Sid Dunning says:

    Particularly enjoyable as I witness the struggle to learn languages in this family. As difficult as it is folks seem to “soldier on”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      It might be a bit like golf in this regard – very little positive feedback seems to suffice to keep us going!

  4. Marion says:

    Speaking of immersion – and Berlitz – some years ago I read a book by a grandchild of ‘the’ Berlitz. In the introduction he described his upbringing in this unique multilingual family. It was fascinating to me. Each member of the family (parents and both sets of grandparents) spoke a different language – and only that language – to him, starting from his birth and throughout his childhood. In this way, he learned six languages as he grew up, without knowing that they were different languages; from his point of view that was how Mum spoke, that was how Grandma spoke, and so on, and he simply learned their vocabulary and how to respond, naturally. It seemed to me to be a wonderful way to learn, effortlessly, and without the stress that causes our adult lips to quiver, and our throats to constrict as we try to form the sounds we hear.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I know of kids here in Ottawa who have 3 languages by the age of 3, in much the same way. One has French, Spanish and Vietnamese. Each parent and a nanny or grandparent speaks to the child in their own first language, and the little munchkins just keep it straight. Fabulous.

  5. MartianMan says:

    Your story brings back a youthful remembrance of painful conflict and crossed brain patterns while learning Latin, French and Polish at the same time! While the first 2 have similar constructs and word roots, the latter has absolutely nothing in common with them. Allow me to explain …

    My grandparents were to celebrate their 50th anniversary in early autumn and the ceremony was planned for the original Polish at a church in Pointe St. Charles. I intended to learn adequate Polish to at least nod at the appropriate points in the service and subsequent celebrations. The home of my youth, my grade school and high school were all located in the multi-cultural areas of Ville Emard and St. Henri – all Montreal neighbourhoods that were rife with a myriad of European tongues & cultures (Italian, Polish, and Greek to name a few). One constantly heard one of these languages wafting across the back lanes of multistory houses. So, I assumed that having heard a variety of languages in my youth, it would be easy to acclimatize to a new language.

    How wrong that assumption turned out to be! When I attempted to come to grips with learning to speak Polish that summer, I kept mixing up terms, phrases, expressions and complete grammatical constructs with French and Italian (the languages I heard most). Even attempts of one-on-one tutoring by my Babcia failed miserably.

    All that to say, I share your pain and understand the cranial crossovers you experienced when trying to put one language’s terminology into the filter of another.

    If I had actually practiced USING the languages I heard instead of just listening then perhaps the brain chemistry would be different now!

    Loved your story …

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, this language is another ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon. Immigrants who stop using their native tongue to any great extent (not so common these days, more common in my parents’ generation) often found that their language capacity declined – especially vocabulary. Hard to imagine losing English – but when I studied in Guatemala, it was the going back & forth that caused me the most trouble, both in Spanish and, remarkably to me, in English as well. After a day in Spanish, I had to reach for commonplace English words.

      • I started losing my English when John and I did only two shows a year with the rest of the time spent in our art studios, in silence pretty much, working — with our right brains. I found I was becoming “dyslectic,” transposing the first letters of near-by words in a sentence. Fog-bound became Bog-found… funny but scary.

        I knew I needed to exercise my left brain more, so, I began a journal, writing every day in complete sentences. It worked as long as I wrote. Thirty years later, I am still writing, the journal is now 3,700 pages in 40+ binders. I spent 5 months in 2009 reading through 3,600 pages condensing it down to 85.

        After awhile writing became as interesting a thing to do as making art. And three books later — one a 450-pg book on pocket lint — I am still writing, keeping a balance.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Locket pint? You wrote a book on locket pint? Your experience makes me wonder what happens to the language skills of inmates.

  6. MC says:

    Loved this post. I always say I can only speak Spanish when I’m trying to speak Italian. I struggled so much with my own learning of French, that I was nazi-like in my approach to my own children’s language-learning, forcing anyone around us who speaks any other language to speak to it exclusively to my children. All TV or movies were in French. Reluctant grandparents were told (only partially jokingly) that they could not see their grandchildren unless they spoke Italian to them. Exhausted through the baby and toddler years, I struggled through three overwhelming years of speaking exclusively in French to my kids until they were accepted into their French schooling. I’m happy to say my craziness, obsessiveness, and persistence means I have a 6 and 4 year old who are completely and easily fluent in English, French and Italian, and learning Spanish by their own choice. They have an ease and love for languages that I won’t ever know, and when my oldest was 5 and said “I want to learn *all* the languages”, I knew it was worth it. Now, I am ecstatically speaking exclusively English in our multilingual household.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      The truly fluent people I know are those who acquired their second language as children, or those who emigrated and have spent the rest of their life in forced immersion (and not all of the latter group achieve fluency). Studying a language for occasional use is about as productive as shovelling water with a fork. Your kids have the only free lunch I know about: second/third languages acquired before the age of 12. It’s all upside, as near as I can tell, and if there’s any trauma, they seem to forget about it.

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