The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (2)

Being multilingual isn’t all joy. I am consistently annoyed that we Americans make no effort to learn to pronounce correctly words and names from other languages. Other Americans express wonder at my linguistic ability, universally declaiming that they have no talent for languages. But in most other nations of the world, learning different languages is necessary and considered ordinary. In Switzerland, for example, everyone speaks French, German, and Italian. And in most other countries I’ve visited, knowledge of American English is commonplace. I often get the impression that we Americans consider our language superior, other languages inferior, and fully expect other nationalities to learn English.

Equally annoying, as I age, I tend to confuse the languages I know. Vietnamese and Chinese are somewhat similar in underlying logic and share vocabulary. Too often I reach for a term in one language and come up with the word in the other. Spanish and Italian are closely related languages. With irritating frequency, I mix them up.

And every once in a while, I can’t remember the English word for something, but the equivalent in another language presents itself. And since I’ve trained myself to think in other languages, I occasionally substitute a foreign term for English in conversation. It’s more than annoying. It’s embarrassing.

Finally, as my hearing gets worse, I can’t hear what other speakers are saying. During the fall of Saigon, I suffered ear damage due to the shelling of my office. I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. But now, even with the aids in, I sometimes can’t hear what people are saying. Years ago, I taught myself to read lips. I was chagrined to discover I could do that in English but not in any other language. So these days, I more and more avoid speaking other languages.

More tomorrow.

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