Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Languishing at Language Level Zero

As a monolingual American in polyglot Luxembourg, much of my day is spent feeling pretty stupid and inferior.  Now, some of you may protest: "No!  You're being too hard on yourself, it's not actually a measure of your intelligence!"  Yet when you're faced with polylignualism day in and day out, "stupid" is a hard feeling to shake.  Most people living here speak at least two languages, but the average seems more like three or four.

Granted, it's not entirely my fault.  When you can travel hundreds of miles in any direction from your home and still speak English, there's no pressing motivation to learn other languages unless you have a particular goal in mind - perhaps specific travel or occupational aspirations.  I certainly never had a goal like this.  It was only a year or two ago when we put "live in a foreign country for a year" on our bucket list, and even that was still extremely vague and frankly I was never really sure if I actually meant it.  But, whoops, it kinda happened.  The power of writing your goals down...

Yet, even many Americans do better than Pete and me, having invested the time and effort to become bilingual or at least moderately bilingual by taking more that bare minimum of language courses in high school and college (and thank you to these smarty-pants Americans who make us look even more stupid).  But even then, their second language is often Spanish.  However, you might be surprised - this actually comes in more handy than you might think here!  If you are attempting to integrate into the local culture, ANY second language will allow you to talk with some folks in Luxembourg, as it seems you're bound to encounter nearly every language in existence at some point.  Pete has used more Spanish here than any other time in his life, even though he took the bare minimum at school.  (At his workplace, the language of business is not only English, it's American English.)

Still, it's quite humbling to constantly be stuck at what we call Language Level Zero.  Level Zero is just recognizing what language you're hearing in the first place.

Whether you're in a cafe, store, bus, or walking around town, you're constantly catching snippets of conversations, only a very small fraction of which are in English.  You instantly feel that ever-so-familiar-friend "stupid" settle in as your puzzler begins its puzzling.  An overwhelming, visceral sense of just how painfully slow your own brain is washes over you - as if your all your supposedly lightning-quick neurons were replaced by a bunch of snails and sloths taking naps.

Sample brain quotes:

"Ok, that's definitely French.  I think.  I'm pretty sure."
"Um, was that German or Luxembourgish?  Eh, it's sounds too French-y for German, it must be Luxembourgish."
"Could that have been some form of wait...Portuguese???"  (I swear, sometimes they sound similar! Really!)
"Come on, brain! You can do this! Focus!!"
" have absolutely no idea what that just was."
"Ok, I'm pretty sure that last one was Danish.  Process of elimination."
"No, actually, never mind.  I give up.  Language Level Negative One for me." :(

While completely humbling and mind-boggling, it's also fascinating and wonderful.  Here are just a few recent day-in-the life situations:

I just met a mom at school who's half British, half Italian.  But she lived in New Jersey and the Netherlands for awhile.  Her husband is Luxembourgish.  She speaks Americanish-English, French, German, Luxembourgish, Dutch, Italian....Aaaahhh!!!!!

We attended a dinner party hosted by a Canadian and Mexican-American couple.  We feasted on amazing authentic Mexican food (hallelujah!).  Several Canadians attended, plus another American, but also a Russian, an Italian, and a Swiss gal with an American accent.  We all spoke English that night (hallelujah!).

At school I heard two moms talking.  I happen to know that one speaks Portuguese (from Brazil) and the other speaks Spanish (from Paraguay) - both among other languages, of course.  As I listened out of one ear I thought I heard some Spanish.  I asked afterwards what language they were speaking.  They told me (in English) that one was speaks Portuguese and the other speaks Spanish back, and they can pretty much understand each other.  (People do this sort of thing A LOT here!)

Daphne found one of her school friends at the park.  I located the mom and introduced myself, asking if she speaks English.  She said no, only Serbian and French.  We sort of muddled through a French conversation, with lots of gestures and mostly sharing really basic information, but we managed to "chat."  If I understood correctly (perhaps doubtful?), they moved to Luxembourg 11 years ago in part so their kids could learn more languages.  I think her husband makes pizzas at an Italian restaurant.  And why not?

Let's see, what else: at school there's the Hungarian-Italian couple.  And the French-German/Irish couple who speak English at home.  And the couple from Peru who lived in France before here.  And the couple from Switzerland about to move to New Jersey.  And the Chinese couple with a son who's the only other Enlgish-speaker in Daphne's class.

In my friend's neighborhood there is a large concentration of Icelandic folks.  Huh?

Ah, Luxembourg, you crazy little country, you.

(We all say that.  It means "bye-bye"- from Italian, of course.  Yep.)


Anonymous said...

Well, as Grandma Dot would say: "Mind boggling!" Happy Daph found a friend in her class who can speak English!

fiona lynne said...

Rasmus has declared that we are speaking only Danish between now and Christmas in an attempt to get me back up to speed before the ten days of all-Danish chat. I actually love when we remember to switch to Danish, because it reminds me I DID THIS. I successfully learnt another language to a decent conversational level.

So there is hope!! Even when French is spinning my head in circles. I WILL master those damn tenses... :)

p.s. I play the "what language is that" game too. Level two is "where do they come from" without hearing them speak!!