“May I speak English?” I asked the woman behind the grocery-store counter. In English.
“No!” she spat back. Stocky and diminutive, she looked as if she might’ve made a good drill sergeant. Or champion bowler.
It was last month, and I was in Budapest. I’d never set foot in Hungary before, and the main reason I was there was that it was a “green” country on the COVID map. All the places I really wanted to go to were orange or red — meaning either “temporarily closed” or, at the very least, “too much hassle for a weekend trip.”
I don’t like going to places where I don’t know a word of the language. I didn’t know a word of Hungarian, and I still don’t. This wasn’t for want of trying. Shortly before the trip, I’d gone to the Duolingo website and made a half-hearted attempt to pick up a few words. But even “hello” had refused to stick.
But hey, what can I say? Hungarian isn’t an Indo-European language; it’s related only to Finnish (which I don’t know either).
Plus a fact, I’m no spring chicken. When I took Spanish in junior-high school, back in the Nixon era, learning new words was as easy as binging on potato chips. In later years, other languages came harder. And these days it seems nearly impossible.
Why, you may ask, should I care about any of this? Good question. A few years ago, I flew from my then home in Oslo to spend an afternoon in Stockholm with an editor of mine (who was visiting from New York to meet with one of his editors). We wandered around the city and stopped at a tourist-crammed cafe where the waiters spoke perfectly good English. When I ordered iced tea in Swedish, he laughed.
“You’re such a language victim,” he said.
By which he clearly meant: if English gets the job done, why knock yourself out? What’s the point of learning other languages so that you can order an iced tea? Don’t be an ass. Focus on things that matter.
He was right, of course. How lucky are we Americans — not to mention Brits, Canadians, Australians, Jamaicans, Liberians, Bahamians, and others — that our native tongue happens to be the world’s lingua franca? Why not relax and enjoy it, and put our efforts into something other than the vocabularies of minor local languages?
But I can’t bring myself to think that way. Not until that visit to Budapest did I realize that on some level I’m a perennial student, viewing every encounter with a person whose mother tongue differs from mine as a test. And hating having to ask: “May I speak English?”
For the past two decades, I’ve lived in a country where the official language — Norwegian — is something I didn’t really start to learn until after I moved here. For a long time, every day was a pop quiz. One day the building janitor knocked at the door and told me we had a lekkasje.I understood everything he said except lekkasje, which was obviously the key word in the sentence. I fell all over myself apologizing. “Hva er det på engelsk?” I asked. (What is it in English?) He shook his head and walked away. I was mortified.
(A lekkasje, it turned out, is a leak.)
Decades ago, on my very first trip to Europe, I fell into conversation on a train with a girl about my own age. She was Finnish, and spoke excellent English. When I congratulated her on it, she explained that it was her fourth language: she was also fluent in Swedish and German.
At the time, I was a Ph.D. student in English with nothing but schoolboy Spanish under my belt. I felt intimidated. I wanted to be like her.
Oh, I did have a little German, and used it for the first time on that same trip. I walked into a bakery and ordered “vier Brötchen” — four bread rolls — and was actually given four bread rolls. It was magic! It worked!
On some level I still experience language that way. It’s magic! It works!
Pathetic, perhaps. But sometimes the magic matters. Once, when I was living in New York, I flew to Montreal at the invitation of a friend who was a major inside-the-Beltway intellectual and was hosting a TV show in that Canadian city. After he interviewed me on camera, we hit the bars and nightclubs. At one of them, he decided he wanted a lap dance from one of the performers. But the performer in question couldn’t speak English and my friend, for all his formidable learning, couldn’t manage a few simple sentences in French. So I stepped in, and negotiated a deal.
Which makes me either a translator or a pimp. Or both.
But at least I’m not out to pass as a native. Norman, an American friend of mine who lives in Oslo, boasts that his German is so perfect that Germans invariably think he’s one of them. They’ve even told him which town he comes from. I wouldn’t mind being taken for a native (at best, in Norway, I’m pegged as a Swede or a Dane), but I’m not trying to fool anybody. I just want to communicate.
At the other end of the spectrum from Norman was my late friend James Lord (1922-2009), the brilliant writer whose friendship with the artist Alberto Giacometti was depicted in the recent film Final Portrait, in which he was portrayed by the much taller Armie Hammer.
James, who’d lived in Paris since World War II — hanging out with the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau — was thoroughly bilingual. But when he spoke French, he didn’t make the slightest effort to sound French.
In fact he seemed to try very hard not to sound French. Sitting in his Paris apartment and hearing him talk on the phone, I was shocked by his aggressively American inflections. Only afterwards did I work it out (I think): James, who’d been born rich, wasn’t out to prove anything — and didn’t want anybody to think he was. In fact I suspect his refusal to sound French was, in a way, a means of putting the French in their place.
After all, they’re the ultimate language snobs. They hate when you address them in English. They hate when you address them in anything less than perfect French. And even if you do speak it perfectly, they hate you anyway, for not actually being French. How better to beat them at their own game than by showing from the git-go your utter disdain both for their language and for them?
The fetish that Frenchmen have for their language explains why on the annual Eurovision song contest, all the other countries report their vote tallies in English while France gets to use French. It also explains why, as a studyconcluded a few years ago, of all European nationalities, “only Russians, Turks and Azerbaijanis speak worse English than the French.”
(And if you take into account that most of Russia and Turkey are in Asia, and that Azerbaijan, as far as I’m concerned, is entirely in Asia, then France is at the very bottom of the list.)
James was American, but by speaking badly accented French on purpose he was following in a long and honorable British tradition. On my first trip to France (I was in Cannes to cover the 1990 film festival for The American Spectator), I ordered dinner in some bistro and was congratulated on my French by an older English couple at the next table. In fact, my French was rudimentary. Only later did it occur to me that perhaps they were praising me for what they took as my lofty refusal to produce the right sounds.
Reflecting on all this, I wondered: where would old-time film stars like Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier have been if they’d spoken accent-free English? They’d have been non-starters. The heavy French accent was 90% of their schtick.
And then it occurred to me: could it be that perhaps the flagrantly American sounds that James Lord emitted had the same effect on Frenchmen as Boyer’s and Chevalier’s vichyssoise-thick accents had on American moviegoers? Could it be that speaking a foreign language with a perfect accent is all very well for a bartender or a flight attendant, but inappropriate for an artist?
Then again, there are some professionals whom you expect to be able to speak a foreign language with at least some skill. A long time ago I thought I wanted to move to Spain. As it happened, a friend of a friend of a friend of mine was the top lawyer for the Spanish immigration service. He (the friend of a friend) arranged for me to meet with her (the lawyer). I went to her office in Madrid. To my surprise, she didn’t speak a word of English.
Even more to my surprise, my own Spanish proved equal to the occasion. We spoke for nearly an hour, and she mapped out three elaborate means by which I might secure permanent residency in Spain. I took copious notes. Although I soon changed my mind about moving there, the trip was more than worth it for the ego boost.
Another time I went to Madrid because one of my books was being published in a Spanish edition. Apparently because I’d carefully perused the translation and fixed a few dozen errors before publication, the editor in Madrid had decided my Spanish was good enough for me to go on TV to promote the book.
I refused. She pushed. (She couldn’t speak English, either.) But even though she got sore at me, I wouldn’t budge. Because I couldn’t be sure that the interviewer wouldn’t come out with some Spanish-language equivalent oflekkasje, and make me look — and feel — like an idiot on national TV.
Of course, getting too hung up on your foreign-language skills — or lack thereof — is a fool’s game. Because you’ll never please some people. When I was a grad student in English, I delivered a paper at an MLA convention. I must admit I was kind of impressed with myself. After my talk, a distinguished elderly professor came up to me.
I expected a compliment. Instead he asked if I was fluent in Old English. No, I said. “Well,” he replied dismissively, “you can’t claim to know anything about English language and literature if you’re not fluent in Old English.” And he walked away.
And if I’d said I was fluent in Old English, he probably would have asked me about my Greek and Latin.
Bottom line: you can’t win. You can be fluent in ten languages, but that leaves a few thousand that you don’t know. And how do you define fluency, anyway? When Melanie Griffith was married to Antonio Banderas, she bragged on some talk show that she’d become fluent in Spanish. Later in the conversation it emerged that she could only speak it in the present tense. That ain’t fluent.
Whitney Huston believed the children are our future. Like many observers, I feel that Eastern Europe may be ours: while freedom and security in North America and Western Europe go down the tubes, the countries behind the Iron Curtain may be democracy’s last best hope. I have American friends who’ve moved East and love it.
The one real barrier is language. Linguistically, there’s a certain comfort level for Americans in Western Europe. Even if you’re not multilingual, you’ve been hearing bits and pieces of these languages all your life, in movies and songs. They feel familiar.
Czech? Hungarian? Not so much. In fact, Hungarian is even less familiar than I realized beforehand. Out on the town during my Budapest weekend, a local addressed me in his native tongue. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak Hungarian.”
“Where you from?” he asked in halting English.
“I live in Norway.”
He looked puzzled. “You live in Nowhere?”
It was like a line out of a Samuel Beckett play. “No,” I said. “Norway.” He still looked puzzled. “It’s a country,” I added. Still puzzled. I kept trying: “Norwegen? Norvège? Noruega?” Nope. Raking my mind, I realized I didn’t even know what Norway is called in Hungarian. (I looked it up later: Norvégia, with a hard g.)
Why are some of us so fascinated — and so frustrated — by language? Part of it must be that when we overhear conversations in a tongue we don’t know, they sound terribly mysterious and exotic. We feel we must be missing something absolutely fabulous.
Then we actually learn the language and we discover that the people speaking it are mouthing the usual banal stuff (“what time is the bus?”) that you hear all day in English.
Which, I guess, teaches an important lesson. People are people. There’s nothing new under the sun. Just because the sounds of another language are strange, that doesn’t mean that what they’re conveying isn’t mind-bogglingly mundane.
Besides, if somebody ever does cough up something interesting in a language you don’t know, chances are you’ll eventually run across it in translation.