Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

September 18, 2012

Fluent is a matter of opinion

By Mike Redmond

— Occasionally I imagine myself as fluent in several languages. It's not without some basis in fact: Over the years I have studied French, Russian, Latin, German, and Spanish.

"Some basis in fact," however, does not mean "reality."

The fact is, when I try to speak a language other than Standard Northern Indiana English (Such As It Is), I become tongue-tied. Or, considering the number of languages involved, tongues-tied.

French, for example. I took French for three years in school. What do I remember? I remember not liking French, for one thing. I remember that I had to introduce myself by saying "je m'appelle Marcel" because my real French name, Michel, was already taken by another classmate, also named Mike; and I remember fragments of conversation drills, none of which I have ever used. Ever. Of course, it might have helped if I had visited France, but that's beside the point.

This leads us to Russian, which I studied for about a year. My Russian is even more pathetic than my French. I remember how to say "Good evening," "Thank you," "Goodbye," "apple," "chimpanzee," and "who said meow?" This will be extremely useful if I am ever greeted by a meowing primate offering fruit.

Now, on to Latin. I took Latin for a year, thinking it would shore up some of my linguistic weaknesses. Unfortunately, I was so rotten at it that I can't tell if my plan worked. My Latin is pretty much limited to "Ad astra per aspera" (through difficulty to the stars, the state motto of Kansas); "Vestis virum reddit" (clothes make the man); and "Semper ubi sub ubi" (always wear underwear).

So forget Latin. My Pig Latin, however, is errific-tay.

German was next. For German I had a crackpot teacher who drilled the language into us with goofy bromides: "Arbeit mach das Leben s٤, work makes life sweet, how true, class, how true." I thought the man was out of his mind. I also learned more from him than any other language teacher.

Now I am learning Spanish via a home study course. According to the course, I am doing splendidly. According to people who speak Spanish, not so much.

Oh, I know a lot of words and phrases, but stitching them all into conversation is another matter entirely. On the computer, I am Don Miguel, el de la lengua de plata (Sir Michael of the silver tongue). In real life, I am Mortimer Snerd, idiota.

For one thing, all those other languages in my head pop out at inopportune moments. I can be trying out a phrase in Spanish when two or three words of German will break free from my memory banks and insert themselves into what I'm saying: Donde esta la herrensraum?

I must say looks on the faces of the waiters at Mexican restaurants are priceless.

But I will struggle on. Maybe I can break through my own personal language barrier and realize my dream of - well, fluency is probably too much to hope for. I'll settle for competence. And less stuttering.

As it is, I've already learned a dandy phrase to go with my Latin mottos and German platitudes: "Los calcetinas huelen mal."

Good one, huh? "Los calcetinas huelen mal." Just sort of rolls right off the tongue: "Los calcetinas huelen mal."

It means "the socks smell bad."

Call me Ortimer-may Erd-snay.

© 2012 Mike Redmond. All Rights Reserved.