Thursday, 9 May 2013

It's Only Words

Sometimes it is exhausting, being surrounded by other languages.  Ideally, if this were a film, I'd be somewhat more lingual by now.  Like when Julia Roberts goes to Italy in Eat Shit Pray (or whatever it's called) and almost immediately is able to hold conversations in Italian. 

I tend to give myself a hard time about it, reasoning that if languages are so difficult to learn, how come babies do it?  The girls I looked after last year were learning three languages simultaneously.  It was not unusual for H to combine all three languages in the same sentence.  Fortunately I knew enough of the three to unpick the meaning.  C would say no in French, shout several words of German, and then clearly enunciate the word "alligator" while I changed her nappy.

I think also some people are more linguistically bent.  My own daughter before the age of two was speaking in full sentences.  I have a clear memory of her laying in her cot, shaking one dummy which rattled and one that did not.  "This one doesn't work", she said. 

Children learn languages differently.  They learn the words they need for survival or, failing that, the noises they need.  And they get very pissed off if you don't understand them, because they seem to have no concept that they cannot speak the language.  My way into a language is through the eyes.  It pleases me that I can now understand ads in Dutch at tram stops.  But I cannot have a conversation.  My "survival" method in Flanders is asking people if they speak English.  In Brussels I use French, of a sort.

In time, hopefully I will be more or less trilingual, or bilingual with Dutch bolted on.  It feels that in moving to another country I have deliberately disabled an essential function - the ability to communicate freely.  I could never be like Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote some of his greatest books in either his second or third language.  Maybe I should aim to be a "baby", stringing together bits of English, French and Dutch and having a tantrum if no-one understands me.  

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