Monday, January 30, 2012

If Only Other Languages Came to Me (and Stayed with Me) As Easily As My Own

A few weeks ago, I realized that one of my greatest fears since I left Buenos Aires 11 months ago is finally coming to pass: My Spanish is fading away. Whoever said, "Use it, or lose it," sure wasn't kidding.

I was writing an email to the woman who manages my apartment in BA when my lapse in language occurred. I couldn't bring myself to say, "I was wrong," which was strange because I've never had trouble saying it in English. I don't have a problem saying those three words (which are actually only two in Spanish, like "I love you," or "Te quiero," which I still think has a much nicer ring, though it's shamelessly overused in BA) because I seldom have to say them. But now that I did, I simply couldn't find the words.

It was worse than on Saturday night when my friend and I were talking about Juliette Binoche, and I couldn't recall the title of the movie she appeared in with Jude Law. I knew it was directed by the late Anthony Minghella, the man who'd helped her win an Oscar for The English Patient, and Robin Wright Penn was in it, too.

My friend pulled out his phone and started to consult Imdb. The pressure was on! I had to figure it out before Imdb did.

"It was two words. Two words. Two words. Something 'and' something. Two words... Breaking and Entering! Right under the buzzer. Imdb confirmed it for both of us.

Unfortunately, the other week, while composing my email in Spanish and trying to say, "I was wrong," my memory failed me completely. If it weren't for the Internet, I might still be staring at that half-unwritten email on my laptop screen, trying to come up with the two Spanish words for the three that I wanted so desperately to express.

Thanks to a translation website, I only spent several minutes in torture. Me equivoque! I know there is supposed to be an accent over the last "e," but bear with me. My Thai keyboard doesn't do accents, nor that special Spanish "n," nor umlauts, which are sometimes used over "u" when it follows "q" in Spanish, but not with "equivoque."

Me equivoque!  Dead wrong. About what had led me to start typing that email in the first place, and to think that you can take the man away from the language, but you can't take the language away from the man. The other night I met a guy from Colombia, and I got in some good practice, but it's not quite the same as calling the place that was fixing my air conditioner every day for several weeks, which I was doing at this time last year, trying to find out when I could put that useless floor fan away for good, or taking Pilates classes twice a week in Spanish, or making pillow small talk with guys who didn't speak a word of English.

I tell myself that's why I never bothered to try to learn Thai. I knew I wasn't staying there forever, so what was the point? I'd only lose it within months of returning to Australia. But who was I kidding? It was the idea of learning a language with a completely different alphabet that terrified me. And if the regular words were anything like the street names (frequently 10 characters or more, or so it seemed, all over Thailand), I was truly f**ked. On the day I left, I knew how to say Soi 2 in Thai ("Soi song," or something like that), and I could write my first name, but only because I have a tattoo of it on my left forearm to guide me.

Yesterday I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Jill Hennessy. Why the Crossing Jordan actress even crossed my mind, I'm not sure? But I was surprised and impressed and not a little jealous to read that she is fluent in five languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian and German. How do people do that? I'm thankful for what I can do with English. It has served me well financially and creatively over the years, but how wonderful it must be to be truly multi-lingual. I wonder how much a UN interpreter makes in one year.

Part of the problem for me is that as a writer, I spend so much of my day immersed in English that there's very little room for other languages. And so many of the Aussies that I meet mangle English, sometimes to a degree that I don't even recognize my own language when I talk to them. I have to work hard not to fall into their syntactic traps.

If I end up returning to Bangkok for good, I'll make an exerted effort to learn Thai. As for Spanish, I'm going to have to spend more time talking to my non-English-speaking Argentine friends online, or maybe narrow my search for Mr. Perfect to "must love dogs and must speak Spanish as a first language." I've also set aside about 10 minutes a day, during my daily runs, where I think only in Spanish.

So far it's working out pretty well. And if nothing else, I'll never again have to say, "I was wrong," when I'm trying to write, "I was wrong."

No me equivoco nunca!
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