Say What? Como Se Dice? Huh?

My mother-in-law is visiting from Peru. I understand Spanish and she understands a good deal of English, but neither of us speak the other’s language. This leaves my husband to play translator when we hit a wall and can’t understand each other. Alone, my mother-in-law and I actually do pretty well. For instance, we spent the whole day together yesterday speaking our own languages, a bit of each other’s, and signing. We did fine.

While I’ve been with my husband for about fifteen years, I’ve never learned his native language. Sad, I know, but he’s only ever spoken English with me. When I’ve pressed him to speak Spanish, he’s told me he doesn’t like to because his parents used to make him practice his English all the time and now he doesn’t want to practice Spanish with me. Fair enough. I enrolled in a couple Spanish classes, but life got in the way and I finally gave up.

Every time we travel to Peru I pick up a more Spanish. One time I even traveled to Machu Picchu with an English-speaking friend and was able to navigate the trip as the Spanish speaker, which is pretty scary if you could hear how bad my Spanish is.

Anyway, Peter Constantine of The New York Times Book Review reviewed a new book called Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book addresses the language-learning wizards of the world. Constantine calls it “part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation. . . an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.

Constantine writes: “Linguists warn Erard that some self-­proclaimed polyglots may say they speak any number of languages, when in fact most of them know only a few grammatical rules, and have only a smattering of ready words and phrases.”  

I can speak half-ass Spanish; I took a couple Russian courses and can read cyrillic, I studied Italian in high school and can’t remember a damn thing except that Bolognese is tasty; and I studied French for years but since the “use it or lose it” rule applies, looking at French now is like seeing an old friend whose face you recognize but whose name you can’t really place, even though you hung out for years. Does this make me a polyglot? Hardly. The consensus is that you have to know at least six languages to be considered a polyglot and you must know those languages well. I kind of figured.

Tonight, my mother-in-law said that she fed my “cut” her food and I told her I loved animals and wanted to get a *fart, too.

* Pedo (fart) sounds like perro (dog) in Spanish when you can’t roll your rs correctly.

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