Years ago I visited Portugal. I will not pause here to wax rhapsodic for six pages about the wonders and beauty of Portugal. Just know that it is gorgeous, decadently lush enough in places that there are calla lilies growing wild by the train tracks.
When I had studied in France, the cleaning woman in my building was Portuguese, and she had told me I should visit there, that I would have no trouble getting around because Portuguese was ‘so much like French.’ So when, a few years later, I decided I’d include Portugal on my itinerary, I didn’t think to worry about language, to worry that I wouldn’t be able to communicate. Fatima’s pronouncement, however, turned out to be just about completely untrue. The first time I heard people talking, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The language looked one way on paper and sounded another way out of people’s mouths. It’s a great language, but it’s not interchangeable with French!
I started picking up teenty tiny pieces of Portuguese as I roamed around the country, learning beautiful words like ‘rapariga’ (girl) and ‘obrigado’ (thank you), navigating the curiosities of ‘ão’ and ‘nh’ and ‘de.’ I’m good with languages. I hear them easily, hear that their unfamiliar sounds create meaning. One of the most interesting things about this facility with language is that I am sometimes able to understand conversation in languages I don’t know (Russian and Hungarian, for instance). There’s a weird kind of songline thing that happens with me and language. I can’t speak, but I can pull out meaning. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I like it. And I’ve come to trust it and rely on it.
One morning after sight seeing in Lisbon, I stopped for coffee at a large cafe on the Tagus. The elegant man who came to take my order spoke to me first in Portuguese, but when he saw my marginal comprehension, he switched first to Spanish, then to English. When I asked how many languages he spoke, he shook his head and looked a little sad.
“Those are the ones I speak well,” he said. “I can speak just a little of three other languages. Enough to make some conversation, but not to really talk.”
“Eleven languages? That’s amazing.”
He shook his head again. “No. My father spoke fourteen.” He pointed at another of the waiters. “Antonio speaks twelve.”
He told me most waiters spoke several languages, that it was a point of pride to learn as many as possible. He said I’d be surprised to find that lots of people in the service industry were multi-lingual. “Maybe not in the country,” he said, “but in a city like Lisbon, yes.”
I tested this out just a little … and found that he was right. Sure, I met people who ‘only’ spoke two or three languages, but the average was five. That continues to impress me. I speak a couple of languages badly. I’ve studied three formally and one somewhat lazily on my own; I’ve picked up bits and pieces of three others. I’d get along reasonably well in France. I’d eventually remember my lessons if I woke up tomorrow in Florence. I could probably hold my own in a Spanish-speaking country (and next month’s class will help with that, for sure). But to speak many languages fluently? Such a dream. I would love to speak five languages fluently, can’t imagine speaking eleven.
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.