When I was a little girl, my Aunt Kay gave our family a series of books about different countries. I suspect it was a hand-me-down from her daughter who had outgrown them; I got a lot of things that were once my cousin’s.
Each book highlighted key facts about each country: where it was located in the world, its major cities and landmarks, what language the people spoke, how the people dressed, what the landscape looked like, what goods the country was famous for. We had one book each for Switzerland, Holland, France, Italy, and Hawaii, maybe a few others but I remember those five. You can tell the books were a little old because they treated Hawaii like its own country, which of course it was at one time. However the color pictures and subject matter made the books timeless in a way.
My favorite part of the book was a short glossary or dictionary key words in the language of the country, such as hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. I found it fascinating that there were languages other than English but certain phrases, like those, were universal.
The fact that there were other languages was not a surprise to me, even at the youngest of age. My parents spoke another language at home, their parents’ native tongue, not really Slovak and not really Polish. Many years later, I learned that this dialect had a name, “pono shomu”, that people in the Carpatho-Rusyn region of eastern Europe would understand. I need to track down the reference but I think the literal translation of pono shomu is “what we speak”. I have no idea whether I’m even spelling the language properly. It’s the closest phonetic spelling I could muster.
Carpatho-Rusyns are a people without a country. I am only now starting to learn more about these people, their hardships, and their lack of a national identity. Andy Warhol is its most famous descendant.
My parents didn’t teach us kids that language. They used this exclusivity to their advantage: when they didn’t want us kids to know what or who they were talking about, they would switch languages right in front of us. They did it constantly with each other and my aunts and uncles.
It had the effect of making me feel like an outsider, someone not part of the club. It’s funny to me how some immigrant families were so proud to be American citizens they completely abandoned their native culture and language to become fully Americans. Others were so proud of their roots, like the Greeks, they taught their children and their children’s children, the native language and kept alive all of the same customs.
In turn, I had no interest in the culture of my people and I still recoil whenever I hear anyone speak Slovak, which happens routinely at church. Funny how my parents, descended from a people without a country of their own, cultivated an environment where they excluded me, their own flesh and blood. They had zero clue the impact it had on me.
I always considered myself a citizen of the world, anyway. Maybe it was the influence of those books so long ago. Maybe it was the “It’s a Small World” album Aunt Kay also gave me, the album I played on endless repeat.
Learning other languages was like playing detective, cracking the code. I remember well the day I learned you could become an interpreter. People actually got paid to translate several languages? That was a dream come true!
My mom operated a beauty shop in the basement of our home. The Mel sisters, Jesse, Dina, and Daisy came weekly to get their hair done, and they were stationed in various seats in the salon. I bounced down the wooden stairs of our house, flung the door open, and proudly announced to my mother and the Mel sisters that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was going to be an interpreter and work for the United Nations!
Mom scoffed at me immediately, “Oh, that’s too hard. You’ll never learn how to do all that!” Jesse and her sisters silently witnessed the exchange.
Defeated, smaller than moments before, I walked back upstairs and never gave it another thought. Not one. I was one obedient little girl alright, doing exactly what I was told to do. I didn’t have the wherewithal to know and value and follow what was intrinsically in my heart, nor did I have an understanding of agency to act on it.
Fast forward to high school, in the early 80s. My school offered two languages: Spanish and Latin. Being the 80s in small town Ohio, I didn’t see what benefit Spanish would ever be to me.
Isn’t that quaint? Isn’t that so stereotypical small town American?
I told myself I would study Latin, since it was the root of so many languages, and used in science, medicine, and law. Surely I would go on to study in one of those fields and it would be useful to me.
That didn’t happen either.
Latin was hard. Harder than I had hoped. Nothing clicked. The construct of the sentences was so, understandably, foreign. I learned a few words but I couldn’t speak it. I hadn’t mastered conjugation of verbs in English let alone in Latin. I have no idea how I passed the class other than Mrs. Schulenberg graded on a massive curve.
Fast forward to 10 years post high school. I was headed to France and England for the first time on vacation, by myself, because I couldn’t find a friend who was interested in making the trip and could afford it. I bought a book to learn a few phrases in French.
The book was marginally helpful to recognize some words but I had no idea if I was pronouncing them correctly. I muddled through. It helped that I spent part of my time visiting with a French woman I had befriended in college. She came to the United States for one semester to study at The Ohio State University as part of her business school program, and we were paired since I too was in the business school and volunteered to serve as a host of sorts to our foreign classmates.
Fast forward to today. It amazes me that things like iPhone apps exist, and among the offerings is one called Duolingo, where you can study other languages for free. The studying is structured like a game, one that is fun to play.
So what am I doing? About 10 days ago I started studying Spanish and French. About 15-20 minutes a day, that’s it. I can do it while I’m waiting. I can hear the pronunciation too. I tried Russian, but the words are written with the Cyrillic alphabet and that just pushed me over the edge so I am tabling it for now. Maybe I’ll have some mental bandwidth to pick it up another time and tackle Italian so I’m ready for that trip when we go in a few years.
My husband’s ancestry is Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese. And now he’s learning Hawaiian on Duolingo. My preteen daughter just started learning Mandarin. My teenage son is headed to France this summer as part of a school trip even though he doesn’t know a lick of French, however he’s typically dismissive of suggestions so I doubt he’ll practice before he goes despite me coaching him.
Last night before I fell asleep, I spent some time on my iPad practicing my Spanish. It’s going well. I’m pretty excited that it prompts me to translate a simple English sentence into Spanish which I can do without coaching or hints.
I love words, and it’s been fun to see which ones are similar and different across the few languages I have had exposure to.
The kicker was this: last night, I dreamt I was stuck on a boat in Chicago with people who looked like they might speak Spanish. I didn’t have a cell phone on me, but I realized I could ask them, in Spanish, for a phone or to dial a number for me, and then I recited a phone number I knew in Spanish: “ocho cero cero,”… blah blah blah, “siete cero cero cero”. And I was surprised and utterly delighted, even in my dream, that I knew how to say it.
Maybe the whole dream wasn’t in Spanish, but it’s a start. I’m finally living out the other kind of dream of mine from long ago, one way or another.