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Carnett: Being unilingual leaves me with a feeling of inadequacy

Are you bilingual?

If you are, kudos to you. I wish I were. Regrettably, I'm not.

My wife, Hedy, is trilingual. She speaks English, Spanish and Dutch. (With Dutch, she can also do a respectable job of deciphering the related tongues of Flemish and Afrikaans.) Her sister adds German and French to the mix.

Hedy was raised in Holland, where almost everybody speaks Dutch and English. Many speak multiple tongues.

Speaking of "tongues," that reminds me of a sequence in Larry Shue's hilarious play, "The Foreigner." A character trying to hide his identity, Charlie, attempts to pass himself off as a foreigner. He pretends not to understand English.

Another character, David, asks him what language he speaks. Charlie feigns ignorance. Finally, after considerable miscommunication, David blurts out: "What name do you have for your tongue?"

"Floppy," the foreigner replies.

"The Netherlands is small," Hedy's cousin, Gerry, told me. "If we spoke only Dutch we'd be in big trouble in international business. By necessity, we must have command of many languages."

Gerry speaks seven, and his English is impeccable. He works in Germany as a translator.

Me? I was raised in Orange County, circa 1950s and '60s. We spoke, let me see, English, English and, oh yes, English. We'd occasionally visit my mom's relations in the middle of this country, where I picked up a smattering of Oklahoman. Oklahoman is to English what Afrikaans is to Dutch. My aunts delighted in their sweeter-than-sweet-tea, drawn-out vowels.

Many times during my adult life I've wished I could speak another tongue. I learned in college that being able to conjugate a verb or two at a party buys almost as much attention from the girls as performing on guitar from the New Christy Minstrels' songbook (except that I can't play the guitar, either).

I became so distressed by my lack of erudition — I'm embarrassed to admit — that I took to stretching the truth.

"Are you bilingual?" a South American visitor once asked me. I didn't want to seem less urbane than a garden tuber.

"Why, yes … of course," I said, perjuring myself.

"Habla Espanol?" he excitedly shot back. The guy was testing me.

"Uh, no," was my rejoinder. "I speak, uh … Finnish."

"Hauska tav ata," was his response.

Ugh. Wouldn't you know it! I get caught next to the only Laplander who owns a ranch on the Pampas.

Several years ago in Paris, Hedy and I walked into a shop on the Champs-Elysees.

The store was packed with shoppers, and it took us a while to snag a salesclerk. When we did, we told her — in English — that we were looking for a special pin for our daughter.

She couldn't speak a word of English. A form of charades as well as exaggerated speech broke out and got us nowhere. Hedy even resorted to Spanish, but to no avail. I supposed the saleslady would drop us like a hot potato. But she didn't.

First she walked us quickly around the shop soliciting other harried employees. Could anyone understand these foreigners? Were we the first Americans since liberation to darken their doorway?

Finally, the clerk gave us more hand signals and made off for the backroom. I figured we'd been dumped.

But, voilà, several minutes later she reappeared with a young fellow in tow.

"Amelie says you need some help," the handsome young gentleman said in perfect English. "How may I help you?"

We grasped him like Hoss Cartwright grasps a warm flapjack.

For the next 20 minutes the young man took us to every corner of the store, and ended up selling us more than we'd bargained for. But we were grateful for his assistance.

As he rang up our purchases I turned to him and said, "You know, Pierre, you speak excellent English. We haven't encountered a single Frenchman who speaks our language as well as you do."

"Merci, but I am not French," he corrected. "I'm a university student working in Paris for the summer. I'm Ruud from Amsterdam."

Like I said, the world couldn't conduct business without the Dutch.

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