I have been a writer since I was six years old. At the same age, I developed a fascination for opera. I discovered that the works that most interested me were not in English. So I set out to learn French and Italian.
At the time it didn’t seem at all odd to me for a child be teaching himself another language. My mother was an alcoholic, my father in prison. I was forced to take care of myself. I quickly learned to become self-reliant. Learning other languages seemed like an ordinary thing to do.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I have a distinct flare for languages. I learn them quickly, and I thoroughly enjoy the process. In high school I had four years of Latin. In college, I studied German, among other things. After I graduated, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School. The army assigned me to study Vietnamese instead. When I graduated, I was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I enrolled at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia to study Chinese. By the time my army enlistment was complete, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me and sent to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.
In other words, I became a linguist. I use the term not to mean one who studies the nature of language and how it works, but as one who speaks multiple languages.
After I retired from NSA, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S., namely Spanish. So I enrolled at the Howard County Community College for Spanish.
These days, as I’m getting older and the brain doesn’t function with the alacrity it once did, and my opportunities to speak the languages I know are fewer, my competence is declining. Vietnamese remains my strongest language. I spoke it constantly for thirteen years. The others are fading.