Friday, December 31, 2010

Speaking of Languages

My grandmother spoke in broken Italian.  When I was a little girl and would visit with her, she would say, "Nice-a to see you.  Come-a in-a-side-a."  I thought she was speaking Italian, and so when I spoke with her, I spoke what I thought was Italian, too.  "Ok'a," I would say.  If she asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink, I might say, "You have any orange juice-a?"  I was ten years old when she passed away, and I never knew what she thought of my innocent, but artless, attempts to speak her language. 

I did a little better with my introduction to French in the fourth grade.  The nun who was my teacher taught the class to say the sign of the cross in French.  We began and ended our morning prayers this way every day, and after pledging to the flag, she would have us respond to "Bonjour mes enfants" ("Good morning my children.")  with "Bonjour ma soeur" ("Good morning my sister.)  She then would mumble a word or phrase that I assumed meant, "sit down" or "take your seats" since we all sat after she said this.  It sounded like, "bes-ette-et".  Over the years, if the subject of foreign languages, and French in particular, came up, I would mention that I only knew how to say these few things that the nun had taught us.  One day I was having a conversation with someone who spoke French, and pleased that I could remember after all those years, said all that I knew in French. My friend said that she never heard of the word I used for "sit down". She said that "be seated" would be "être placé"  I then realized that "bes-ette-et" wasn't French at all.  It was English, and she was saying "be seated" with a flair.

The next language I attempted was Spanish.  I selected it as my language requirement in high school.  I didn't find it easy as do some people like my friend Christopher who speaks five languages, but with hard work, I did fine.  When I attended Brooklyn College, I again elected to take Spanish for a trimester. I had forgotten most of my high school Spanish, but I thought it might come back to me.  One evening, I wrote a humorous poem in Spanish, as a lark, and showed it to my teacher. He actually liked it, and I know he found it amusing because he chuckled as he read it. He said that coincidentally he was going to announce a Spanish writing contest, and that it was very timely that I had submitted my poem. 

To my surprise, the poem I had written, "El Premir Poema in Espanol" won a prize and was published in a journal called "Luces".  The instructor had polished it up, correcting the grammar before submitting it, so I must say the final copy was much better than I could have done on my own.

I had been invited to a reception where I would be presented an award by a distinguished professor from Spain.  My Spanish teacher introduced me to him prior to the ceremony.   Assuming, I suppose, that a prize-winner in a Spanish writing contest should be able to carry on a conversation in that language, he spoke with me, and I could see that he was asking me questions. I had no idea what he was saying.  At times he would smile broadly, and I found myself, nodding, smiling and saying, "Si" to avoid embarrassment.  


While writing this article, I had second thoughts about posting it to the blog. The anecdotes were humorous, I thought, but was it really a noteworthy coincidence that I had written that Spanish poem at an opportune time?  I hadn't yet written an ending to the entry, when I decided to just send it to my email and file it away.  As soon as I signed on to AOL  right on the front page there was a picture and large caption, “ Reasons to Learn Another Language.”  I guess that is coincidental enough to convince me to post this account. if we look for and are receptive to them, little signs abound.

Joan Virzera

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