There are no people whom I respect more than those who are fluent in more than one language. Traveling in Europe I have seen many such persons, but I am still impressed no matter how many of them cross my path. I am a monolingual American, trying daily to learn German, the language of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. And until I become fluent in German, I will consider my accomplishments wanting.
A great irony of my life is that I grew up around literally thousands of bilingual people to whom I gave no thought at all in that regard. My hometown of Harlingen is some 20+ miles from Mexico and even in our day, the population was more than half Mexican-American. (That percentage is surely much higher today.) The one high school back then was on the north side of town where the majority of the Anglo population lived, and many of the relatively poor Mexican-Americans walked to school. From the beginning of their lives they spoke both Spanish and English, totally naturally as it were, and in hindsight my respect for that ability now regards them as having been rich. I go to a health club today in a suburb north of Chicago that many Mexican-Americans frequent. Just this week I stopped man whom I deduced had spoken both English and Spanish. When I expressed my admiration, he seemed to regard his ability as something with which he was simply born.
Here in Chicago there is a large Polish population, and one Sunday afternoon I attended a church service entirely Polish because the German teacher at a local high school was having her baby baptized. (It was probably the only time I have attended a church service where I had absolutely no clue what was going on.) The teacher spoke Polish, English, and German, and was working on her Spanish.
This past summer I asked a woman of not 25 years of age working at the front desk of the hotel where I was staying in Gstaad, Switzerland how many languages she spoke, and said, “6.” Her father is Brazilian and her mother is Swiss so she came by her six languages somewhat naturally. In Lucerne I encountered another delightful lady working at the hotel where I was staying who apologized to me because she “only” spoke English, French, and German.
And then there is Sol Gabetta. I will write effusively about Sol Gabetta in another context later, but suffice it to say that she is a world-class cellist, born in Argentina, now living in Argentina, who speaks six languages. I know because I asked her how many languages she spoke when I went to hear her and got to meet her when she played in Houston with the Houston Symphony. She is all over youtube playing the cello, but if you look long enough, one can see and hear her speaking five of her six languages. By nothing but chance a lady behind me in line to get Sol Gabetta’s autograph took two pictures of us together. Those pictures are among my most valued treasures.
These days I am connecting via Skype two mornings per week with a German tutor who lives in Iceland. A friend told me about a website called italki.com and via that website, one can hook up with a tutor of almost any language. My tutor, Julia, a native German born in 1988, speaks German, English, Swedish, and Finnish fluently. She also is somewhat fluent in French. Julia is studying Icelandic and will eventually have that tongue added to her quiver of languages. She is eventually planning to move to a group of islands somewhere near Scotland to learn a language distinctive to that area. Julia and I were talking, in German, about all sorts of things when the name of Daniel Barenboim came up. Julia googled his name and found that he speaks as many or more languages than she does. My boundless respect for him as a pianist and a conductor suddenly was increased exponentially from another aspect.
The cutest experience I had in Germany this past summer occurred one Sunday afternoon when I was in the backyard of the pastor of the church where I had played that morning. A neighborhood child named Josey walked into the yard carrying a stuffed animal whose name she told me was “Simba.” With much seriousness she proceeded to tell me the story of “The Lion King.” It was a German lesson worth my entire trip.
I am fully aware that people all over the world are blessed with a variety of tremendous gifts. And I would give them their due, if I had the opportunity to do so. But probably because I did not learn another language when I was Josey’s age, I am so very moved by the subject of languages today. Now in my 60s I look forward to the day when I can tell Josey in her native language about the life of child in Texas way back then.