Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My first and last language

One April, for National Poetry Month, I invited a respected poet to visit my poetry workshop as a guest speaker. She is a distinguished teacher/scholar and and no shrinking violet, but she suddenly expressed a lack of confidence in her public speaking skills. "David," she explained, "English is my fifth language!" 

She did eventually accept, and on the day of her talk she held forth in flawless though Chinese-accented English for an hour.  At one point she actually used the word "instantiation," which I had to look up, and English is my first language. Unfortunately, I fear, it will also be my last.

That's not for lack of trying. I have formally studied four languages, Hebrew, German, Spanish and Russian, and cannot speak any of them. I am tongue-tied in four tongues all at once, if you can picture that.

Hebrew school, of course, was never actually intended to make me chatter like an Israeli. The aim instead was teaching me to pray in a language God could understand. After four years, six hours a week, I know dozens of blessings and prayers and psalms and songs, although not necessarily what they mean or how they mean it. Some of what I memorized, I discovered much later, wasn't Hebrew at all but Aramaic, which come to think of it is another language God understands, see Matthew 27:46. Shows how little Hebrew I grasped, if I couldn't detect when we switched into Aramaic.

Three years of high school Spanish really ought to have given me some ability to converse, with all those dialogs and drills and language labs. But although I could play back a dialog--"Where is the library?"-- I couldn't carry on an actual conversation. It only took five minutes in Barcelona to make it clear that I was a natural-born monoglot. I could barely order almuerzo.*

Next I took a reading course in German because I wanted to understand Rilke, and that worked out as well as you'd expect--who understands Rilke? I absolutely love German but definitely can't speak it. When occasionally I attempt a word of German out loud to a native speaker, I get only verst√§ndnislose Blicke.**

Mind you, my disability in Spanish and German is about speaking; in both languages I can usefully read ordinary text, if not mystical poetry. But Russian was different. After two semesters plus a summer at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and Leningrad. I couldn't really read or talk. I understood barely half of what was said to me, and the Russians caught even less of what I said, which invariably caused them to switch to English, which is what they had wanted to do in the first place. Everyone in the Soviet Union was mad for English and Western culture and  consumer goods. "Peenk Floyd?" they would ask, fishing for forbidden music, and "Troozya?" 

Troozya? Troozya, I eventually deduced,  meant trousers, which at that delicate moment in US-Soviet relations meant that they would pay many rubles for my blue jeans.  Would I sell them my blue jeans? "Da!"***

It doesn't add up. In English, I am handy with words and have lived by my pen. I possess a good ear, an easy style, and a vocabulary twice as large as anyone needs, even to play Scrabble. I can give a speech to a large audience without looking at my notes. Why can't I talk foreign? 

I blame a lifelong aversion to going through that painful but necessary phase of language learning when one makes mistakes and more mistakes, commits howlers in public, and gets frustrated and flustered and laughed at for sounding like an idiot. Even as a toddler, I'm told, I hated to babble. "You never talked baby talk," says my mother, a longtime elementary school teacher. "You weren't going to talk until you were good and ready. Then one day, full sentences!"

At age two, I could have it both ways: dignified and fluent. Ever since, apparently not. But I keep thinking how interesting it would be to learn Arabic. Inshallah!****

** Uncomprehending stares
*** Yes.
****God willing.


  1. David, your self-deprecating humor is ingratiating but your command of your primary tongue is extraordinary.

    Well written piece. I actually DID LOL.

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