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Mesa Musings: English is my only tongue

March 19, 2012|By Jim Carnett

Our culture regularly informs us that it's a big advantage to be bilingual.

I accept that.

Trilingual? All the better!

I, unfortunately, am — and have always been — painfully monolingual. Some would label me monosyllabic.

I've never been one for languages. My experience in high school Spanish classes was harrowing. I scraped through by the skin of my teeth. Conjugating a verb was for me like trying to offer a rational exposition on quantum physics — way, way out of my league!

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A drama student for a time in college, I mastered a range of regional and foreign accents. In college, my buddy Steve and I used to pick up girls with our Aussie accents. We were Derrick and Colin, from Perth.

My youngest daughter, Melissa, inherited my gift. She does spot-on imitations of Minnesota/Wisconsin, deep South and English/Irish/Scottish accents.

My wife, Hedy, and I have spent considerable time in our favorite European city, Paris. I've discovered, however, that if I speak English there with a French accent it does nothing to ingratiate me with the locals. As a stratagem, it's pathetic.

So much for my gift.

Hedy, on the other hand, is bilingual. Born on the Indonesian isle of Java, she spent her formative years in the Netherlands. Her first language is Dutch. She came to the U.S. at the age of 10 — not knowing another language — and today speaks unaccented English.

She's also fully conversational in Spanish.

Think that's impressive? Her cousin in Amsterdam is fluent in Dutch, English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. To say he has a gift for languages is like saying Fred Astaire can do the two-step. His English, though accented, is spotless.

Me? I'm still trying to noodle the proper usage of "farther" and "further."

Dutch is a strange tongue. Speaking of which, I remember my daughter — when she was a teenager — asking her mother: "What do you call your tongue, Momma?" "Dutch" was Hedy's distracted reply. "Oh," came my daughter's zinger. "I just call mine Floppy."

Dutch is a distinct language — not a German dialect — spoken primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. It's said to be midway between German and English.

It's a first language, worldwide, for about 23 million people, and I'll wager most of those individuals also speak English. Visit Holland and you'll have no difficulty getting around. Seems everyone there speaks excellent English. Don't expect the same luck in France or Germany.

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