Adabbler in languages, I came across a book titled Les Bon Mots. I found it at the latest AAUW book sale, where early birds can get some amazing stuff at a good price.
The book is a guide to hundreds of French words guaranteed to make people sound oh-so learned. As interested as I am in English, Spanish, French and German, I fear that decades from now many of the lesser-spoken languages, including a host of Indian tongues, will have vanished to make room for English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.
But this column isn’t going to be about the death knell for languages that don’t get passed on to grandchildren.
Yet, let me mention one linguistic anecdote. A couple of years ago, my wife and I took a river cruise on the Rhine, from Amsterdam, Holland, to Basel, Switzerland. Our ship docked overnight in a city that appeared bi-national and bi-lingual, with equal amounts of French and German.
That was perfect! I had studied both languages and brought along tapes, phrasebooks and dictionaries for both. I’d boned up on French and German, ready to dazzle the natives. In the tourist town where we stopped, it was common to see signs advertising “Magazin,” which is the French word for shopping area. Next door might be a German “Schnitzel” restaurant, which means a veal cutlet, but which the American company rechristened a hot dog.
My first observation on arriving at this town was how universally similar things are. True, some of the knick-knacks may carry a message in a German or French script, but too many of the items resemble kitsch we can buy in the states, at virtually every tourist stop. The stands were riddled with plastic shot glasses, polished wood paddles and baseball caps. Regardless, I hoped for compliments of the nature of, “Ach! Gott im Himmel! Where did you learn to speak German so beautifully, mein Herr?” Or else I longed to hear, “Mon dieu, monsieur, you must have grown up in Paris.”
My plan was to ask the sellers about the quality of their wares. I tried this tack at two adjacent street-side stands, and the French speaker interrupted me to say, “Please speak English.” The neighboring German-speaking vendor nodded. My linguistic acumen was foiled!
There was a time, for example, during our honeymoon in Mexico City, when a hotel clerk named Rafael greeted us with the usual, “Please speak English” request. I discovered that Rafael made that request because of his desire to acquire more English. I suspect the European vendors — 45 years later — didn’t have the same wish. And they probably knew more English than I do and also might have cringed over the butchery I’d committed on their native language.
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The “please speak English” request appeared often, years ago, when I discovered I was perhaps the resident with the most melanin in a homogenized Chicago suburb of about 6,000. I ran a weekly newspaper in a township called Warrenville and almost immediately became the object of much questioning. Now forget anything having to do with Spanish heritage; Mexican was my new description, and, according to some townspeople, I spoke Mexican, not Spanish.
It wasn’t all hostile. I suspect there was a natural curiosity. What is a dark-skinned Mexican doing here among all these people with last names like Ruczika, Mihulka, Boldt and Zaininger?
Most amusing was the considerable “testing” I underwent. At the first school board meeting I covered for the Warrenville News, before gaveling the meeting to order, the clerk turned in my direction as I walked toward the press table. He hollered, “Andale, andale, arriba, arriba.” I assume the intent behind the command was to make me feel welcome. But isn’t that a line straight out of some of those western-based cartoons we watched as kids at the Serf?
I believe that rather than trying to make fun of me, the clerk wanted me to realize that he was “one of us,” someone who took a Spanish class in his youth and was thoroughly conversant with the declensions of Spanish.
Shortly after arriving in that town, I attended a Thanksgiving meal with a family who tried hard to please. Not only did they play an LP of “Sounds of Mexico” by an orchestra named 101 Strings, but also they feted me with some Tio Taco brand of TV dinner. Tasty, and probably newer to me than to them, as I’d never tasted a frozen dinner of any kind.
As the music played and I swallowed the last bite of arroz con pollo, we chatted about the distance from New Mexico to Mexico City. To my hosts, the Meadow City might have been part of the Mexico City metro area.
It turns out that from where we lived in Illinois, we were closer to Mexico City than I had been in Las Vegas. Some might say the tone of the dinner was “patronizing.” Perhaps.
But to this day, as I recall the many exchanges (“how do you say ‘airplane’ in Mexican”; “are there any TV programs in English in New Mexico?”) were based on curiosity.
Over the years we’ve hosted a number of international students from Highlands and the United World College. It seems to me we’re as curious about them as my Illinois hosts were to me, 50 years ago.