Est-ce que je peux parler français?
Si! Io parlo francese, e italiano anche…
Pero yo hablo español también. Yo sé mayor esta idioma.
(Apologies if I’ve made any horrible grammatical errors here, which I’m sure I have.)
As a kid, I grew up in Watsonville, a town with an almost half Latino and mostly Mexican population. Every day I heard Spanish, whether it was classmates at my elementary school, a crackling radio broadcast or my dad speaking it to his employees. I developed a pretty good ear for it, but I never absorbed it well enough to speak it with fluency.
During high school, I took four years of the language and enjoyed every class and teacher who taught the subject. When I got to Pomona College, though, I still needed to take intermediate college-level to meet degree requirements.
It wasn’t fun. My Spanish professor slurred his words so badly, and few of us in class understood him, I struggled and barely managed to earn a low “B” by semester’s end.
So what did I do after that? Take beginning French for a whole year, of course, just for the heck of it.
That folly actually came in handy the summer after sophomore year, when I traveled to Britain and France with my sister to meet up with my brother-in-law who was working overseas. After exploring London and surviving the mostly horrendous meals we ate, I welcomed the chance to visit Paris and finally enjoy some decent food.
Everyone warned me about the notoriously snobby Parisians, but I found they treated me well if I just made an effort to attempt to speak their language. They probably snickered at my poor French once I was out of earshot, but it didn’t matter.
After that, I soon discovered I loved French, which overtook my appreciation for Spanish. It just sounded more sophisticated and romantic, all the things people associate with it. But I soon realized that French wasn’t going to be very useful in my work in public education. So I dutifully took up Spanish again, still understand it well but speaking it haltingly.
Flash forward to today.
Thanks to an online Rosetta Stone program, I have just learned to speak some rudimentary Italian. I figured that spending 10 days in Italy this past summer was worth the effort. But I discovered that the majority of people spoke some English wherever we went, so my words centered mostly on “Grazie,” “Buongiorno,” “Ciao,” and “Prego,” and not too much beyond that.
The only time I really conversed with anyone was an older gentleman who owned the inn we stayed at (and another one) in Radda in Chianti, the first stop on our Tuscany bike trip. I’m certain I threw in a few Spanish words when I became stuck, but he had the graciousness to refrain from correcting me.
On the earlier part of that same trip in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to use my rusty French in the towns on Lake Geneva. It was gratifying to know that our hosts, RAS’s German-speaking friends from Zurich, thought I knew more French than they did and spoke it pretty well.
And then, on our final night in Europe, we stayed in Madrid for an extended layover. The really cool thing? I understood and spoke Spanish more fluently and confidently with the locals than I ever had before, even if it was just for 24 hours.
So it’s pretty simple why I love studying foreign languages, even as I get older and it’s increasingly harder to remember stuff. There’s not much practical use in knowing Italian, as it’s rarely spoken outside of Italy, and who really knows when I’ll get the chance to use it or French again (Spanish is another matter if you live in the southwestern/western US, as I do)? But I’ll keep going with it, even when my hair starts to gray.
It keeps my brain fit. It’s fun. And as trite as this might sound, it really does help me to connect closer to the world. Just like travel itself.
Next week, expect to see mostly daily postings from Los Angeles, as I take on the traffic, smog and uber-beautiful people for your benefit.