I am incredibly gifted at languages and linguistics. Not bragging, just saying. That’s my strong point. I can mimic the sounds of a foreign language after not much exposure. It only takes a little bit of partial or full immersion for me to start understanding the grammatical structure of a language, even if I don’t know any of the words. After four years of choir, a year of eighth-grade Latin, a semester of Portuguese, two and a half years of French, and many years of Spanish, I can recognize and “read” written languages, especially Germanic and Romance ones, competently enough. When I learn new words, I invariably pronounce them correctly. Languages are my strong point. We all have areas in which we excel, linguistic nuance happens to be one of mine.
So it’s interesting that last night I was writing a quick, informal review of a book on GoodReads, and I spent a great amount of time grasping for a word that I could literally see and hear, through some kind of curtain, in my head, but could not totally get out. I am very, very attached to my thesaurus, which is weird when you consider that I almost never need to look words up when I’m reading. I understand and remember the meaning of most English words, and I can look at them and probably tell you what language they come from, but I can’t call words up out of my head without a problem. And even though I can read a page of Spanish and be perfectly satisfied with the 80-100% I probably understood, I have a lot of difficulty translating word for word, and I absolutely hate it when people ask me “how do you say [blank] in Spanish?” because I cannot tell you, even if I previously spoke or read the word in question. I suppose my language skills are based on nuance, context, and intuition, not direct correlation. This is probably also why I don’t keep my languages separate in my brain, and why I don’t think I’ll ever be totally fluent in any of the languages I’ve studied, because they mix together. From growing up, my most comfortable way of talking about tropical fruit is to say the names in Portuguese, I use regionalisms and Spanglish slang, especially when talking about cultural or food things, I’m not funny except when I’m using Yiddish, and I adore learning new compound German nouns, because they are so damn good at expressing ideas. Continue reading