Speaking in Tongues

¡Buenos dias, amigos!  Goedemorgen, bon jour, and שלום!  The world is a small place and getting smaller by the megabyte.  The ability to communicate in several languages is becoming more important than ever; but beyond that, it’s just plain fun!

I love to hear people having a conversation in a language with which I am not familiar. I listen for patterns and repetitive words, and I watch their body language.  I find I can actually understand the gist of such conversations in this way; especially when there are children involved, because the language is simpler.  It helps that the context of human interactions tends to be pretty basic in general.  It’s fascinating to me how the human brain can meaningfully  comprehend different sounds in different regions of the world.  It’s like a puzzle just waiting for me to solve.

I feel truly fortunate to have been raised in a multi-lingual home.  Spanish, Dutch and English formed the soundtrack of our lives.  Although we were only spoken to in English, I learned Spanish because my parents used it with each other so we wouldn’t understand their conversations.  Once they figured out that I knew what they were saying, they switched to Dutch.  Then I learned Dutch, and they were out of luck. Children absorb home languages because they need to.  It is amazing to see a three-year-old who speaks one language to mom and a different one to grandma without even thinking about it. When I was fourteen, spending the summer with Oma and my tantes (aunts, her three remaining sisters) in Amsterdam, I was allowed the freedom to roam as I wished.  One time I was riding the tram, and a family from Argentina sitting near me was talking to each other in Spanish about being lost.  I was able to get directions in Dutch from a local and help the Argentinian family find their way.  Too cool!

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I developed inhibitions about saying the wrong word or using the wrong tense or not having the correct pronounciation.  Another reason children seem to learn languages more easily than adults, other than their more malleable brains for absorbing and more limber tongues for producing, is this lack of fear.  Fear got in my way for many years; working with children as a bilingual teacher helped me get over it.

I always tell immigrant parents to immerse their children in their native language for as long as possible.  It is my firm belief that early exposure to more than one language opens up pathways in children’s brains that lead to increased learning ability overall.  In addition, we need more multilingual people in the United States for an endless number of reasons.  Yes,  everyone here should speak English well;  but I also believe that being multilingual is a largely unappreciated asset in this country.  In Europe, it is taken for granted that most people speak another language.  It helps in business and social aspects. My mother has three languages in her repetoire, my father spoke five languages; my Oma spoke eight!

On my “bucket list” are the following languages: Mandarin, which I am currently studying just for fun in my spare time;  French, which I can get by with, but would like to speak fluently; Hebrew, which I can decode but not comprehend beyond a few basic words;  maybe Portuguese and Russian too, if I live another hundred years.  Just like chocolates or beach days, you can never have too many!

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