Speechless in two languages
Recently, we had some Spanish friends visiting us. My husband lived with them in Granada for a school exchange trip, and has stayed in touch with them ever since. For our honeymoon we went to Andalucia, where he introduced me to this warm and generous family. They treated us to an unforgettable day in Granada, so we were very pleased when they announced that they were coming to Scotland for a once-in-a-lifetime trip and were hoping to see us. It was a pleasure to try to give them some of the hospitality that they had shown us.
Renewing my brief acquaintance with them after twelve years, I discovered several things. One was that they were just as lovely as I had remembered. Another was that my knowledge of Spanish has not magically improved in the intervening time. Having a little French and Italian, I was able to pick up some basic Spanish phrases quite easily on honeymoon and to follow the gist of conversations. I never did get beyond chapter two of my teach-yourself-Spanish book, however: once we were back in Britain, Spanish lessons fell by the wayside. Working in an art gallery in Edinburgh, ‘Soy azafata con Iberia’* seemed even more redundant a phrase than before.
*(I am an air hostess with Iberia)
Thus I discovered afresh the frustration that comes with liking a person, having many things in common with that person, wanting very much to compare notes and to discover more about that person, but being entirely unable to communicate with them. Arrrghh! I sat there either smiling dumbly, or opening my mouth to contribute to the conversation and realising that nothing could come out. There I sat, opening and shutting my mouth like a goldfish, while congenial people exchanged interesting information in a language of which I know as good as nothing.
When I was young enough to hope that fairy godmothers and their grants of three wishes might be true, my dearest wish was to be given the gift of tongues. How wonderful it would be to able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, in their own language. These days I guess we have the internet and Google Translate to help us: it’s not the same, though, as unmediated conversation. The only thing for it would be to get that old Spanish language book out of the library again, and to try to progress beyond the air hostess stage.
Meanwhile, I sometimes feel just as dumbstruck in my native tongue. One of the lingering after-effects of brain injury is that I still ‘lose’ words when I am speaking. My sentences dry up as a perfectly obvious word eludes me. This makes me feel very old, which I am not. When I am tired, though – as I am this week, muddle-headed and almost tearful with exhaustion after my lovely trip to Dorset at the weekend – this symptom gets worse, along with the others. Again, so frustrating! But I think I notice it more than anyone else. It’s only me that really gets bothered by it.
Over a lunch of home-grown salad the other day, I tried to articulate the frustration to my husband.
‘Eugh, what a stringy radish,’ he said.
I think I’ll go back to Spanish.
For another take on head injury and family life, see What are little boys made of?