Getting ready for bed last night, I told Dominik that I think he should shave his new beard before we go to France in a couple of weeks. He agreed that it’s best not to show up at the bank looking scruffy.
“Yes, I think that would be vice.”
“Wait, vice is bad.”
“VICE. Double-u E S E. F*ck. Nevermind. Goodnight.”
“Geez, honey, pick a language.”
My poor husband. He is fluent in German (his native language), French (if you ask him how he learned it so well, he will tell you it’s from working projects in France, but the truth is it was from pursuing french girls during his exchange summers in France as a teenager), English (because he used to be the general manager of a commercial composting facility in rural Mississippi (!)), Latin (you think this is a dead language, but he has read books in Latin, and as a result knows an oddly amount about Roman military strategy), a fair amount of Greek (his Latin teacher threw in the Greek for free), and can understand a smattering of Dutch and other European languages through simple osmosis. Sometimes he has a hard time picking a language in any given moment.
In fairness, he graduated from a German secondary school called a Gymnasium, which is like a combined middle school and high school plus one extra year, that specialized in languages. So that was a lot of years learning a lot of languages, plus they started English in elementary school. Whatever the Germans do, they do really well. Can you imagine dropping a copy of The Annals by Tacitus in Latin down in front of a group of American high school students and telling them to read it?
But it’s not just the schooling that made this possible — he has an ear for it, literally. To him, language is a melody, and he understands the “music” of it. He doesn’t know grammar rules, even in German. He just knows how it is supposed to sound. This means that he has phenomenal pronunciation and a near-native accent, in French, especially. I know for a fact that he speaks essentially no Italian, but he was making fun of a commercial for Perillo Tours the other night and threw out this mock-Italian sentence in an absolutely perfectly convincing accent. It makes me crazy. It also means that if he’s responsible for teaching a language to someone — say, a logical, highly-analytical, rule-oriented, musically challenged person who can’t learn auditorily, there’s not much common ground. This is what happens when a left-brained person tries to teach French to a right-brained person:
“Wait, why did you just pronounce that final T? There’s no E at the end.”
“I don’t know, you just do.”
“But why? What’s the rule? Or the exception to the rule?
“I don’t know, it just sounds right.”
I say my poor husband, because he bears most of the burden of speaking and translating right now. I know from my limited experience, and also from Dominik’s experience (and that’s a whole universe of two for you stats experts out there), that languages are just all down in your brain in one bucket — that’s my scientific explanation. When I’m in France, I’m as likely to say danke as merci. There isn’t a French area of your brain and a different German sector of your brain; they’re all inconveniently co-located. This means that whatever language you’ve been speaking the most of lately is at the top; the ones that you’re using the least sift to the bottom and require some excavation to retrieve. So it’s no wonder that he gets confused sometimes. We got an unexpected call this morning from our realtor with our lawyer on the line for the first time, and he hadn’t finished his coffee yet. He only struggled to find a word once, but he felt awful when he got off the phone, which is ridiculous. I remain in awe of his abilities.
I know that I’m going to have to learn French. Fluently. When I lived in Germany, most of life centered around the American post, where the kids went to school, played sports, where I bought groceries at the commissary, etc. I didn’t live on post and I spent more time than most people shopping and eating “on the economy” as they say, and as a result, I can do everything from buying lunch to ordering shoes in German. I could even say in German, “I am an American. I am a lawyer. I have four children. I live in Leonberg.” That’s it. We’ve exhausted my conversational skills in German. I also never learned future or past tense; I lived only in the present. I used to say that it was like I was a German toddler that never grew up. After six years, Germans were understandably incredulous that I couldn’t speak more. I always resorted to, “Ich kann kein deutsch,” which means I don’t speak German, but all that did was invite a torrent of response because clearly I could speak German, since I just said that I don’t speak German in German.
This time, there will be no post, no commissary, no repository of ready-made american friends overseas. I tried taking French private tutoring lessons before I went to cooking school in Paris in 2012, but typically, didn’t get very far. I built up a lot of food vocabulary, so while I could have aced a kindergarten french test on food names, I was essentially missing verbs. So as long as you didn’t do anything to or with the food, I was fine. I have a hard time just keeping straight the conjugations of to be, to have, and to go. In my defense, these are irregular verbs, yet I am determined to get these down, because you can go a long way with those three verbs. “I want” is also very important. Past tense can wait.
With all of that said, I now have a rather formidable vocabulary when it comes to construction and real estate, as well as business accounting. My hearing comprehension is improving rapidly, although I’m still apt to freeze up like a deer in the headlights when someone talks to me in French. “Je ne parle pas Francais!”
Copyright 2018, Rachel Howard