Mesa Musings: English is my only tongue

Our culture regularly informs us that it's a big advantage to be bilingual.

I accept that.

Trilingual? All the better!

I, unfortunately, am — and have always been — painfully monolingual. Some would label me monosyllabic.

I've never been one for languages. My experience in high school Spanish classes was harrowing. I scraped through by the skin of my teeth. Conjugating a verb was for me like trying to offer a rational exposition on quantum physics — way, way out of my league!

A drama student for a time in college, I mastered a range of regional and foreign accents. In college, my buddy Steve and I used to pick up girls with our Aussie accents. We were Derrick and Colin, from Perth.

My youngest daughter, Melissa, inherited my gift. She does spot-on imitations of Minnesota/Wisconsin, deep South and English/Irish/Scottish accents.

My wife, Hedy, and I have spent considerable time in our favorite European city, Paris. I've discovered, however, that if I speak English there with a French accent it does nothing to ingratiate me with the locals. As a stratagem, it's pathetic.

So much for my gift.

Hedy, on the other hand, is bilingual. Born on the Indonesian isle of Java, she spent her formative years in the Netherlands. Her first language is Dutch. She came to the U.S. at the age of 10 — not knowing another language — and today speaks unaccented English.

She's also fully conversational in Spanish.

Think that's impressive? Her cousin in Amsterdam is fluent in Dutch, English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. To say he has a gift for languages is like saying Fred Astaire can do the two-step. His English, though accented, is spotless.

Me? I'm still trying to noodle the proper usage of "farther" and "further."

Dutch is a strange tongue. Speaking of which, I remember my daughter — when she was a teenager — asking her mother: "What do you call your tongue, Momma?" "Dutch" was Hedy's distracted reply. "Oh," came my daughter's zinger. "I just call mine Floppy."

Dutch is a distinct language — not a German dialect — spoken primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. It's said to be midway between German and English.

It's a first language, worldwide, for about 23 million people, and I'll wager most of those individuals also speak English. Visit Holland and you'll have no difficulty getting around. Seems everyone there speaks excellent English. Don't expect the same luck in France or Germany.

"We're a small country," Hedy's Amsterdam cousin explains. "No one speaks our language, so we have to speak theirs in order to prosper."

In Orange County, Hedy, and maybe five other people, speak Dutch. She has little opportunity to use her native tongue here, except when visiting her mother or speaking via telephone with her sister, who lives on the East Coast.

Mostly, she and Sis speak English to one another, though when Hedy wants to discuss something not meant for my ears, she'll conveniently lapse into "Nederlands" — or Dutch.

I'm wise to her ploy.

Because we've been wed for 37 years — and I know the woman like William III knew the answer to Hampton Court's famous maze — this mono-linguistic moron has developed a bit of an "ear" for Hedy's lingua franca. I frequently pick up on her conversational "drift," if you know what I mean.

Like the other day when I was within earshot of her conversation with her sister. I heard Hedy say, "Jim spreekt niet goed Nederlands!" It didn't take being a Phi Beta Kappa in linguistics to figure that one out.

"Hey, I understand that," I shot back, feeling superior, not to mention cosmopolitan.

Thirty-seven years, and this mono-linguist is on the road to reaching bilingual status. No need for Berlitz or Rosetta Stone. I'll just continue to crib the wife's telephone calls.

And, when the day finally arrives that I've mastered Hedy's tongue, I'll be able to speak to five new Orange County friends!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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