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Fun with Foreign Languages

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb
My mother was a born adventurer, a conquistadora , the first female ever to leave her village in quest of higher learning in Barcelona.  But after she married the mindset of the era caught up with her and she gave up her studies and settled down to making my father happy and being a good mother.
She supervised the maid, mended socks on rainy days, went to lectures and art openings, argued with her sisters, and read.  But her wanderlust kept her restless and frustrated. When it came time for me to go to school she looked at the convent schools for girls and found them tame. Besides, they all taught French as a second language, and France was hardly exotic, being practically next door, just across the Pyrenees.

Then she heard about a new school run by German nuns, and her imagination caught fire. Germany! Those deep pine forests, the men in strange leather shorts, that fabulous snow—here was weirdness and the promise of mind-expanding adventures, especially since the nuns, who barely spoke Spanish, promised to have me speaking German before I reached puberty. This, my mother hoped, might qualify me to marry an ambassador some day, and help to make peace in the world.

But neither my mother nor the nuns realized that a state of terror interferes with learning, especially learning a foreign language.  My German nuns, survivors of the Reich, were fiercely devoted to discipline, punctuality, and standing up straight.  In their hilariously inadequate Spanish they would shriek strange insults at us. Eres mas tonta que la noche! (You are dumber than the night!) was a common reprimand that made no sense to us Catalans, who associated night with the scent of jasmine and the trill of the nightingale.

In that atmosphere, I found German grammar even more impenetrable than math. Der,des, dem, den; die, der, der, die… no matter how well I memorized them, declensions made no more sense to me than lowest common denominators.

Fortunately, after almost five years of this, my mother’s wanderlust freed me from my struggles with German. My father was offered the chance to go to Ecuador as part of a string quartet; she urged him to accept; and when I was ten we left Barcelona for the wilds of South America.

In Quito, she enrolled me in a school run by Spanish nuns for the daughters of the Ecuadorian aristocracy. There I was instantly branded as la españolita, the little Spaniard, because of the way I spoke. Although my classmates and I shared the same language, my Castilian Spanish was the equivalent of British English, and I must have sounded foreign and affected to them. It took me about a week, in self defense, to shed my accent and sound like a local, incorporating not only their pronunciation, but also native Quechua expressions:  arrarrai (hot), atatai (disgusting), achachai(cold).This appalled my parents, who thought I was prostituting my national identity. But I had to fit in somehow.

Meanwhile, the river of Catalan in which I had used to swim in Barcelona shrank to a narrow stream. My parents and the other three members of my father’s string quartet all spoke Catalan, but everyone else—the maid and the vegetable seller and the Indian man who sold us milk from his cow–all spoke South American Spanish. To my Ecuadorian classmates, I was the little Spaniard, period, and they didn’t know or care that I wasn’t really and truly Spanish, but Catalan.

In my new school there was a teacher from Germany, a tall, thin man who, thank heavens, taught only English. After the rigors of German grammar, the apparent simplicity of English was balm to my brain. After class I would mumble bits of phrases to myself:  Little Miss Muffett/sat on a tuffet/eating of curds and whey.  Tuffet, curds, and whey were mysteries to me, but they sounded cool.  English was cool, and I thought I had just about mastered it.

When my parents and I landed in the wilds of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1958, the confusions about where I came from and what my “real” language was continued to dog me. In the Catholic high school that I entered as a freshman some of my classmates weren’t too certain of where Spain was on the map, and what distinguished it from, say, Mexico. When people assumed that my native language was Spanish, I tried to explain that it was Catalan.
“Oh, you mean a dialect of Spanish?”

“No!” I would shriek. “Not a dialect! A different language! A completely different language!” And they would shrug and turn away, baffled.

After a while, I stopped explaining, and let my friends assume that Spain was a homogeneous culture where everybody spoke Spanish, played the guitar and danced flamenco. At home, though, with my parents, I spoke Catalan.  The river of language had shrunk to the merest trickle, but it still flowed where it mattered.

At least for a while. Then in 1960 my parents, who had long been disappointed in their hopes for a large family, produced another baby. I was sixteen when she was born, and as delighted as my parents were. Undeterred by the fact that Americans found my name, Eulalia, unpronounceable, my parents proudly gave my sister another weird but thoroughly Catalan name: Nuria, after a valley in the Pyrenees.

Where language was concerned, however, they were more pragmatic. As an American, my sister would need to know English, but learning Catalan as her second language would take up precious space in her brain. Spanish would be far more useful, and therefore they decided that we should switch from speaking Catalan to Spanish at home.

This threw me into fits of adolescent rebellion. Although I had all my life spoken Spanish to  non-Catalans, I could not bear to even think of speaking it to my parents. It felt artificial, affected, false, pretentious, and profoundly embarrassing. But my parents were adamant, so I compromised. If my sister was in the room, I spoke Spanish. But the moment she toddled off and I was left with my parents, I would switch to Catalan, even in mid-sentence. When she toddled back in I would clench my teeth and go back to Spanish.

My parents also decreed that, since my English was better than theirs, I should speak to Nuria in English, so when I was alone with her that is what I did. To this day, even though she speaks it well, I don’t think my sister and I have exchanged a single sentence in Spanish.

That is how the trickle of Catalan slowed to an occasional drop. After my father died, it became a language that for many years I spoke only with my mother. Now that she is gone, I almost never speak it. On the rare occasions when I do, the words feel like stones in my mouth.

4 Responses

  1. As someone who took Latin in High School, a year of Russian in College (I remember less than 10 words), and know how to order coffee in any language, I loved this piece. I'm enjoying your bio. Keep it up.

  2. Lali, this is my favorite of all your wonderful posts. I'm so envious that you had such a grounding in different languages at a young age. But I just ached at your last paragraph. In a very small way I can related, as I have no-one near me who speaks Thai (beyond my husband who only remembers a few words and phrases).

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