A Word In Edgewise: Reeling and Writhing … and Fainting in Coils


I was reminded when again I read the reminder that someone who speaks broken English obviously knows a second language, that we are becoming more and more intolerant not only of other cultures, but even of their spoken words.

Recently at Sam’s Club, a worker spoke to the cashier briefly in Somali. The man in front of me immediately chastised them for not speaking English, even though they were not carrying on a lengthy conversation. I interjected and said I thought it admirable that they spoke both languages. The shopper glared at me, snatched up his bags and departed.

Other societies don’t share this isolationist attitude. A French friend’s grade-school daughter was already learning English, while her older brother was studying German and English. The young man at the hotel desk in Amsterdam at 21 spoke Dutch, English, Italian, and Romanian. I do speak French to a degree, and can read it fairly well, having managed to get through the three Folio volumes of Les Miserables, but the most I could articulate in Dutch was “Dag!” (Hello).

So, when I announced my recent intention to study Dutch, the main response was, “Why?” I first listened desultorily to tapes, gained a few phrases, and then, realizing that self-motivation is not my forte, signed on at the University of Minnesota for Dutch 1001. There I’ve joined some dozen other students, most of whom, I discovered in our halting, introductory conversations, are a good half-century younger.

Of an evening, I must confess, I’ve also asked, “Why?” Why is a student of a certain age, for whom even common English words now and again fail to surface when summoned; who now needs the mental image of a stagecoach and team of horses in order to remember the name of his bank, decide to take on board “de woningbouwvereniging”?

Well, for one thing, I plan to revisit the Netherlands, and I think it only polite to be able to say even a “Good morning,” “How are you?” or “See you later” to a native. Languages open new worlds, and opening on any level is a more wholesome and healing activity than battening down the hatches, shriveling like a dried nut in its shell, and shutting out the wonder of this many-languaged world.

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