Monday, December 1, 2008

Why We Should Learn Another Language

([Between the
Pulpous Pith of

I am happily fluent in three languages (English, Spanish and Italian), work on becoming so in another (French), and have “let go” most of still one more (Latin) which I studied for six years in my youth. If I had the time, I would return to translating Cicero doing so con gusto. (Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis amant.) It irks me that there are thousands of other languages in the world. Worse, peoples and nations do not have a common language to communicate in so as to consider only what is basic for them. I once entered The Rolex Awards for Enterprise competition submitting this project title: “An Artificial, Limited International Medium of Communication.” The ROLEX officials did not even recognize my suggestion in their list of entries, but they were kind enough to send my idea back to me. The Swiss are great!

In my head there are two reasons to explain my penchant for polyglotism. I was born in a city (New York) where more than two hundred languages are spoken on any given day. Where cultures intersect at every corner. Where “getting along” is the unwritten law. Perhaps no other urban sprawl in the world is better at the art of living together. My instincts are programmed to know about the differences people, in general, possess. For the twenty one years I lived in New York, I never said firstly “In what restaurant are we going to eat tonight?” No. I asked: “In what kind of restaurant are we going to eat tonight?” I am, by nature, extraordinarily inquisitive. New York tickles your curiosity bone constantly.

The other rationalization is that the mother and father of my father were born in The Old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The mother of my mother was born in Ireland. The father of my mother came into this world on the French-German border—which side I do not remember. His surname was French, but he was decidedly Prussian in temperament. Alsace-Lorraine? Who cares. Forever, in my home, contrastive dialects echoed off the walls, and even my Irish-by-preference mother often peppered her speech with French language verbal tidbits. Voilà!

Words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community, is for me something primordial, something that creeps around everything I am involved in. I am not a “viva-voce” linguist. I am a “brain” linguist. I will be the first to admit I speak English, Spanish, Italian, French and Latin as unbearably as my mother did when she blurted out, from the kitchen, “Il fait mauvais temps. Il pleut!” In school, I was taught to translate languages—not to speak them. Terrible!

I am a hodgepodge! I buy three different eaux de cologne and mix them up to make my own scent. I can switch from one foreign author to another. (I am reading these days, in French, the works of Alain Minc.) My spectrum of interest in music is really quite unusual: classical, cumbia, 1960s’ songs, jazz, opera, pop, salsa, Gregorian Chant, mariachi, Russian folk songs, Swiss folk music…there is no borderline for me. If it is good, I like it. (I would take Beethoven over all others if I had one choice to make before being sent to a deserted island against my will.) On the shortwave band, I listen to English from the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Austria and Japan. I listen to Spanish on Radio Nacional Espana and an Austrian network. I listen to French on the radio and watch it on Italian television. I listen to Italian on the radio, watch it on TV, and talk it with my friends. (A few years ago I persuaded Bob Holness of the B.B.C. on his “Anything Goes” program to play “Sugar” by The Archies for my sweet Italian wife, Maria Luisa.) Strangely enough, I swear by Cuban cigars, straight whisky, HEWLETT-PACKARD, David Hume, CASIO, ANTINORI wines, razor blades to shave with, tennis, SONY, turtleneck sweaters, DUNHILL 965 pipe mixture, and integral cane sugar from Ecuador. (Can anyone then berate me when here in Italy, where I have lived since 1 May 1983, I respond to an Italian’s “When are you going to become an italiano, americano?” with this rejoinder: “I want to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the first one who secured the European passport!” Lucky for me Italian manicomi have been closed for years!)

Back to reality. I must speak about the gratification my multilingualism has provided me with throughout my fifty two years. But—before I do—I have to take two detours: one to Venezuela (Spanish) and one to Italy (Italian).

I arrived in both places without speaking a word of either native tongue. Does not make for an easy adjustment! Yet, it is infinitely more interesting and surely more fun. Anthropologists say you need about three to four years to get into the swing of things. It was easier for me to acclimate to Italy because I had practiced adjusting in Venezuela. (I once spent a year in Vietnam as an artillery first lieutenant, but that sojourn afforded me no chance to get to know the Vietnamese people and their customs. I would have liked to very much so.) Not knowing the common speech at the beginning forces you to scrutinize the faces and gestures of the people, and this offers the possibility—I think—to learn more about them than actually speaking to them when it is necessary to do so!

Spanish in Caracas is not the same language they hablan in the Universidad de Salamanca! Spanish people will be the first—and snootily, too!—to tell you so. Spanish in South America is not homogenized as English is in the United States, Great Britain and Canada, for example. Pina (pineapple [I still have not learned how to Microsoft that accent mark over the “n” in pina!]) can have different meanings in different countries. If you use Spanish Spanish (sic!) as a point of reference in Caracas, you might go crazy. Venezuelans are mostly poor, uneducated individuals. Their schools and cultural institutions are not exceptionally developed due to the fact that in large part there, there is a rampant corruption in government which has little to do with bettering the lives of the underprivileged in Venezuela. (I was robbed three times in Caracas. Two times by pistol.) There are fantastic restaurants in Caracas—some known worldwide. (Try the Costa Vasca.) I could purchase Havana cigars there, too! Caracas was also once the jumping-off point in South America for many classical music concerts of world renown. After six years and four months there, my Caracas Spanish had progressed sufficiently for me to understand very well the political and economic nuances in Venezuela which I gleaned from Spanish-written magazines, newspapers and financial bulletins. Eventually, I had to leave. In 1976, when I arrived, one dollar had cost four bolivares. Today, it is climbing up to seven hundred bolivares (see Global Economic Outlook, Union Bank of Switzerland, 4Q, 1996). Venezuela can make you cry. The more Spanish I learned there, the sadder I got.

Italian in Italy is not the Italian they speak in Italy! You can go fifty meters in any direction and find another way to converse and pronounce the Italian language. Unlike an all-embracing English or a far-reaching Spanish, and not much like a boxed-in French or German which would like to aggrandise, Italian is not an “out-to-conquer” dialect as Latin was before it. I tell my Italian friends—after eating my CHEERIOS!—that more people are learning Latin, nel mondo, than they are contemplating the language of The Boot! (That gets the blood circulating!) Remember this, however: When you put your eyes on Italy you are seeing something really special. You should not have to speak. (It is a shame Italians talk too much!) People come to Italy to look and become overweight. Italy is soothing to the eyes. (Not all of it.) Corruption makes Italy vulnerable to every kind of pecuniary disease and this takes the “charm bite” out of it if you live here long enough. So then, if Venezuela cannot get off the ground because of its depravity, Italy is threatening to collapse under the fardello of its turpitude. Italians are tired, old. Their linguistic stock is filled with regrets and complaints. Sixty percent of the Venezuelan population in 1983 was under eighteen years! Forty percent of the families in Italy have one child, and almost twenty per cent of the habitancy is over sixty five years! Venezuela and Italy are both truly in bad shape, and Venezuelan Spanish and Italian Italian (sic) reflect themselves frequently—as a consequence—in exaggeration and demagoguery. Venezuelans and Italians are running scared. In this lachrymose atmosphere language fails to flourish.

I consider myself lucky (I have been unlucky many times!), nonetheless, to have had the perfect occasions to immerse myself in three divergent ways of life. I could have been bogged down as a junior (senior?) exec in a New York-based multinat drinking and smoking and sweating myself up the “Ladder of Success” unto, maybe, a pension! I chose not to do that, and I took the blows I had coming to me for doing so. No regrets. (I can croon “I Did It My Way!” Can you?)

There are three delights you come into when you speak more than your own language. You are less bored—for sure. There are few things more exhilarating than plopping yourself into a strange country with $5,000.00 (1983) and setting out to live there happily ever after. (When I saw Caracas the first time, I could not wait to leave it. Italy is more calming on the nerves, but getting more unstable even as I write this little essay.) You must relearn the meaning of everything! That is fantastic! You do not have to be a genius to familiarize yourself with the fact that the “C” on the shower faucet is not cold but “caliente,” HOT! The “F” is cold, “frìo.” It is not only language that you must take in, you must feel the “rhythmicity” of the people, their speeds at eating, drinking, working, waiting…. For the first four or five years there is so much to assimilate and decode, you are constantly absorbed in analysing and being stimulated to think your way through to understanding where you are and what you are doing there. (And you better have a good motive or you will be in for a very difficult time!) All of this is a natural process, and I have been lead to believe—over the years—that people are not put together to stay in any one place for more than six or seven years. (Most do, however.) We just want to know more about others and, ultimately, ourselves. (The success of our megalopoles?) Fixed in one place, this urge frustrates itself and we suffer the consequences. In another country you are always kept busy trying to show others that you also can live and think as they do—when necessary. You are always busy learning.

By switching to another parlance you change your mental “channels,” an important benefit which gives an individual a sobering placidity. (Great for writers!) Unfortunately, most people only speak their own language. I can turn on or turn off from one vernacular to another and refresh myself just as one might turn on, or off, the television or flip through the channels to freshen up after a hard day’s work. If I am tired of Italian, I can “zap” easily to English. Whether I select to read a book, enter a conversation, or listen to a radio program, I am sure to have a mental respite. I can always buy a Spanish newspaper or read a French political analysis. There is always a choice for me to make, and I never feel demarcated by my own idiolect. I am never confused in French, Italian or Spanish restaurants. (I wish I could find more foreign restaurants in Italy.) I am always willing and able to digest more of the four languages I have a familiarity with, and these “hobbies” have tended my way a variety of methods to cultivate my tremendous desire to know more and not only in my own language.

In conclusion, one also derives a very grand sense of pride and self-satisfaction. You get happy fifs (Funny Inside Feelings). Before I travel by train, I stop at a kiosk and pick up magazines and newspapers in four different languages, and then I amuse myself watching the expressions of the people in my compartment who appear to be amazed at the amount I am reading and the languages I am reading my editions in. (I do not want to sound arrogant to you, my dear reader. I am not being haughty. I just feel so pleased with myself, I want to share my joy with you! Remember also, please, I had to sacrifice much to arrive at this recompense. In fact, I am truly sorry for those who have not had the pleasure of putting down pat another language.) El Pais, Cambio, Hola! (in Spanish, the exclamation point and the question mark are put before [and after] a word or sentence to prepare the reader—but I cannot find the way to do so on my Windows 98! Can someone help me?), L’Espress, Le Monde Diplomatique (perhaps my most favorite news journal), Wall Street Journal (to know what The Enemy is thinking!), Times Literary Supplement, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, La Gazetta dello Sport, La Settimana Enigmistica…. All the years of study and learning come to be remunerated in a train compartment! I feel good about what I have accomplished, and I know most people would also want to share the wonderful experience of being—at least—bi-lingual.

My dear reader, what are you waiting for? You can do it, too! I hope I have presented you with reason enough to get started on the language you have always wanted to speak. (The third and the fourth come even easier—I swear!) Think of the contentment you will derive from conversing to others in their mother tongue. What a stupendous manner to broaden your outlook. To seek communion with your fellows! To establish the bonds that will lead to a globalization—noble
and equal! To bring respect and admiration, for your country, to the people of other nations!


Hasta luego!


Au revoir!

(Multum…viva vox facit!)

(Parenthetically, it is more readily comprehensible than you think!)

* * *

Extracted from:

Pages on Form-giving Cause as Contrasted with
Potential Existence

Written by:

Anthony St. John
Casella Postale 38

1 November 1996

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