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Speechless in two languages

September 22, 2011

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.

It’s as if,’ I cried, clutching at hyperbole, ‘I have the contents of the Bodleian Library in my head, but I can only access the Ladybird section.’

‘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?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Toffeeapple permalink
    September 22, 2011 5:35 pm

    He wasn’t really listening was he? It is frustrating when you are excluded from a conversation. I felt the same when I was staying with friends in Finland and couldn’t speak to the children one of the boys asked his Mother if I could see him and that broke my heart.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 22, 2011 10:33 pm

      Hah! No, he wasn’t. To be fair, though, he is usually a good and patient listener.

      That boy’s question really does clutch at the heart, doesn’t it. I’d never thought of it that way but I know exactly what he means. Oh, wouldn’t the gift of tongues be wonderful?

  2. September 22, 2011 5:38 pm

    My parner is Spanish and speaks no English. Most of my dearest friends are English speakers with little or no Spanish – I find it very hard sometimes that all the people I love best can´t talk to each other and get to know each other better because of the language barrier. Lovely post, and I was sorry to read that you are recovering from a serious injury – must be tough.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 22, 2011 10:45 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting! It must indeed be hard to be between two languages as you are; although I envy you the ability to converse freely in both. Thank you for your kind comments.

  3. September 22, 2011 9:48 pm

    Oh this is so familiar. My husband speaks fluent Swedish and Austrian German. I speak fluent French and bits of Italian and Norwegian. When we go to one of our ‘fluent’ countries one of us is always smiling and silent (or dozing off as the conversation and wine flow around us). But it’s also an effort for the person doing all the talking. As a teenager or student you get a certain leeway, but as a proper grown-up there are conversational expectations to be met. I was exhausted last summer in France with having to sustain conversations with both friends and strangers. I particularly remember conversation at dinner at one chambre d’hotes where with the French hosts and Belgian guests I soldiered through the British royal family, Scottish clans, devolution, bull-fighting (one of the Belgian wives was an ardent bull-fighting fan), respective merits of various Bordeaux vintages, the making of whisky, the Belgian political situation, the Scottish education system. Meanwhile my husband smiled and enjoyed his magret de canard.

    Hopefully you’ll have a quiet period now to recoup from your travels, and give yourself time to settle again.

    Loved your proposal story. Mine happened in Stockholm, and immediately afterwards we took the boat to Finland. Travelling by train from Turku to Helsinki through misty autumn woods, small red wooden houses in forest clearings, was a sudden plunge into eastern Europe and an awareness of Russia just a border away. All the more striking because I had just arrived from a month in Los Angeles and was still attuned to hard, bright sunlight and palm trees. We thought we would go back to Stockholm and Finland for our 25th anniversary, but France lured us instead.

    Oops, I didn’t mean to ramble so much. But just to finish – I have a question for you in the comments on my Elgol post…

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 22, 2011 11:20 pm

      It’s a fact of foreign travel that one is often treated like an ambassador for one’s country. I have been interrogated on boarding schools, Scottish independence, Britain’s attitude to the Euro etc.etc. Rather hard work sometimes, as you say; especially when you’re in holiday mood and feeling frivolous.

      Your own proposal story is very evocative and makes me long to hear more. Another film, perchance?! I very much enjoyed your question: what would your own answers be, do you think?

  4. September 23, 2011 8:33 am

    Yes, this resonates witih me too, i.e. both the non-listening husband – what can you do? – and the effort of speaking in a group a language that is foreign to some of the group. However, tolerance and patience works wonders. For me? I practice gesticulation and manage to communicate quite well as I try to build up the vocabulary!

    We have just returned from Reims where a group of us (German, Swedish, French and Scottish friends aged 60 – 80) get together in one or others’ country every so often. Again we are good a patience and tolerance and … always … return home having had a nice time!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 23, 2011 3:11 pm

      Really, my husband is so patient a listener usually! I am feeling a little disloyal now, for all that that was a particularly priceless exchange.

      I love the sound of your group of friends. It can be wonderfully stimulating being in a multinational group, I think – I’m glad you enjoyed yourselves, and you set a good example for me! 🙂

  5. hmunro permalink
    September 23, 2011 7:51 pm

    Oh, but you *do* have the gift of tongues, DB! Only someone with the gift of tongues would write, “I like the crunchiness of German, contrasted with its surprising outbreaks of lisps and snuffles: schluessel, for example, delighted me for weeks when I discovered it. (The word, not the key.) Hafenschlepper is new to me but another delicious example of German at its snuffliest.”

    Still … I can relate only too well to your frustration at not being able to communicate with a lovely person because you don’t have their language. But when all is said and done, actions speak louder than any words — and I suspect that your lovely personality and kind hospitality spoke volumes!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 24, 2011 5:50 pm

      Well, I’m blushing a little now at your characteristically generous comments. And to quote me back to myself at length must be one of the highest forms of compliment as far as the written word goes. Thank you so much, Heather.

      I still wouldn’t say I have the gift of tongues, but perhaps what I do have is an *ear* for languages. That’s why I so enjoy listening to the ‘song’ of words and language. If only I could translate that ear for sound and accents into an ability to retain the rules of grammar! You’re right, though, body language goes a long way.

  6. Margaret Lambert permalink
    September 23, 2011 9:53 pm

    Our daughter married a Sri Lankan, and moved to California where her new husband had many friends and relatives. Eager to meet the bride, they all hosted parties to welcome her, but where she was embarrassed to be discussed in Tamil. Fortunately she has a gift for language, and soon understood enough of what was being said to startle them with her own comments. She said watching sub-titled movies helped! Loving the food, she charmed the cooks by asking for recipes and instructions to cook curries and sambals. Eventually the extended group had all met and approved the bride, who was no longer just another silly young American blonde, but someone sincerely interested in them and their culture. She and her husband have now been married 9 years, very happily, and are planning a move to Colombo, so the children will be comfortable in several languages.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 24, 2011 5:57 pm

      What an inspiring story, Margaret. Your daughter sounds a gifted diplomat, or perhaps I should say that she sounds a genuinely empathetic and kind person. Good for her for bridging the cultural divide so successfully. I wish her and her family every happiness in their move to Sri Lanka.

  7. September 24, 2011 9:20 am

    Hmmm, what would my own answers be? I’m not a very serious film watcher, so my frame of reference isn’t all that big. But perhaps Ewan McGregor for my husband? Both are Scottish, they share a name, and I like the twinkle in his eye (like my husband’s). But not the motorbikes. I have said to my husband that if he gets a midlife crisis motorbike I am divorcing him. As for who would play me – well that’s difficult. Julie Walters, perhaps, since she’s such a versatile actress and could manage to play even me! I’m certainly not Hollywood!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 24, 2011 6:04 pm

      Haha, thanks for playing! I like Ewan’s twinkle, too – plus he is a Perthshire lad, so I am biased in his favour. And there’s nothing wrong with not being Hollywood in my book!

  8. September 24, 2011 6:36 pm

    Lovely post! Granada is so beautiful and the people are wonderful – and kind if you struggle with the language. How nice you have stayed in touch and they came to visit.
    (Oh, and the library/Ladybug section comparison is terrific…..We do love those little books – but don’t seem to have that one.)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 25, 2011 3:29 pm

      Thanks very much, Philosopher mouse. I hope to go back to Granada one day.

  9. Jennifer permalink
    September 27, 2011 9:27 pm

    Thank you for making me laugh out loud. I can just imagine Mr DB coming out with such a non sequitur. As for sitting dazed while others speaki another language, I think that experience has helped me to understand how it feels for my father’s worsening deafness. It’s like me trying to follow a conversation in French – if everyone speaks clearly, preferably facing me so I can see their expression, and speaks one at a time, I have a chance. Otherwise, I find myself in a totally different conversation.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      September 27, 2011 11:25 pm

      That’s a really interesting parallel which had never occurred to me. I’ll remember it in future, when I am talking to someone hard of hearing. Thanks for that! 🙂


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