In the recent hullabaloo over all the awards I’ve received, commentators and interviewers have marveled over the fact that I have spoken and worked in seven languages. Their wonder reflects the ignorance and arrogance of us Americans. We are the most powerful nation in the world and expect all others to speak out language. We consider the study of a foreign language extremely challenging and admire those willing to take on such a difficult task.
As a child, I was unaware of the American bias and taught myself French and Italian. I had already learned, due to negligent parents, to be self-reliant: if I wanted something, I had to get it myself—no one was going to do it for me. Foreign languages fascinated me. So I set out to learn the two that I found most beautiful.
It turns out that I have an inborn talent for languages. And I thoroughly enjoy them. That I find learning a language fun puts me at odds with most Americans but very much in sync with the rest of the world’s citizens. In almost every other country in the world, people speak multiple languages, and learning new languages is standard for everybody.
So here I am, now an old man, with a history of having spoken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Latin—the latter of which I learned to read, not speak. Far and away the most intriguing were the two Asian languages, Vietnamese and Chinese (Mandarin). They both showed me an entirely different way of thinking about language. They both lack anything like western grammar—they have no parts of speech, declensions, or conjugations. Meaning is dependent on word order and context.
More next time.