Human beings are designed to either want things or to want to do things. Most have a list of things they would like to do or get or achieve before they hit the bucket. It can range from wanting to walk the Appalachian Trail to wanting to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to having 17 wives and over 100 kids. (I’m not joking: there is actually a person in the UAE who is doing this, and that too with government funding.)
My own wishes are a bit more prosaic and don’t require me to walk through a country or hike to a mountain peak or procreate like crazy. One of them is to become multilingual.
There is merit in learning languages other than the one you grew up speaking. (This applies especially to speakers of English, which almost everyone speaks these days.) I don’t want to learn a new language because it would look cool on my college application – been there, done that, multiple times – without ever knowing a third language. In fact, I already have three degrees and if I even think about going back to school (which I secretly do), my sisters will commit me to a mental institution. The doctors at the mental institution will have to coin a new term for my disease which would sound something like “addicted to being a student so she can do all the peculiar stuff she wants to and stay unemployed while pretend to pursue academic excellence”… but I digress. I also don’t want to learn a new language just so I can be known as that “crackpot who can speak Ukrainian”; there are enough reasons already for me to be classified as a crackpot (Ukranian or no Ukranian). I don’t even want to be called a well-rounded person because I am a well-rounded person. As a matter of fact, I need to turn some of that roundedness into muscle, but I digress again. My problem is this: every time I decide to learn a new language, something happens that puts me off it. It is either a series of unfortunate events or a horrid person or my lack of perseverance or a combination of it all, but I am yet to master a third language – I have checked, sarcasm doesn’t count as a language, although it should, given that it is the Esperanto of our time – and I am digressing yet again.
Anyone who knows me knows my love for Ghalib. When people land in Delhi for the first time, they want to eat food at Dilli Haat or see Qutub Minaar or have their pictures taken at Laal Qila. I went to pay respect to Mirza Ghalib at his mazaar. Abba (not the Mama Mia fame 70s pop act – I call my father Abba) used to say that in order to fully appreciate Ghalib one must know Farsi. And so I always wanted to learn it to understand Ghalib better.
But my 45-day trip to Iran – I was working on a travelogue for a TV channel – stripped me of all the love and affection I had for the language. All I can now remember is the haggling I did in grammatically incorrect Farsi at the Grand Bazaar of Tehran and how the Irani actor who was working on our project complained that he had been sexually propositioned by a Pakistani actor and how I first had to placate him and then requested him not to register a complaint in a weird mix of barely-there Persian and English with a few Urdu and Punjabi expletives thrown in for my personal satisfaction. I had to do that to get out of that country without getting entangled with law enforcement agencies because we were told that homosexual advances are considered a non-bailable offence in Iran. I wanted to learn Persian to appreciate Ghalib’s poetry more and ended up groveling to a guy for not reporting an incident of sexual aggression – something I don’t believe in – to save my skin along with that of my crew. That took care of my fascination with Persian. (Now I only throw random phrases of Farsi in the middle of arguments to sound learned.)
As a child, I also wanted to learn Arabic because I naively thought it would guarantee me a place in heaven. Growing up generally and dealing with a Saudi stalker at university who refused to register the fact that no amount of petro dollars would make him popular with normal folks took care of my childish enthrallment with Arabic (to say nothing of the visions of paradise associated with the language). The fact that I can still fool my European friends at Dubai airport into believing that I know Arabic by reading the flight schedule in the language also played a part (why learn a new language when people think that you know it already?).
Another language I have toyed with is French. I hate snooty waiters at French restaurants who correct my pronunciations. I dream of going to a French restaurant and ordering Soupe au pistou, Boeuf Bourguignon and Salade Niçoise without fumbling once. Back in college, I tried speaking French with my friend Frédéric but every time I tried take the name of a dish, he cracked up and dashed my hopes of holding my head high in a French restaurant and proudly order escargot borguignonne – the thing is that I don’t even eat snails, I only wanted to order them, without repeating the word thrice to make sure that waiter got my order.
Back in college I lived in student halls and when we got a brand new community room with a huge TV (I graduated 9 years ago, so that TV was a big deal) I wanted to enjoy that too. The problem was that every time I would go there – and I tried sneaking in at 3 a.m. – the room would be full of Greek students watching football. I had to give in eventually and learned to appreciate football with them. Not only that, but I also learned to enjoy Greek food, how to order it in the lone Greek takeaway in the neighbourhood and all the choice swear words in Greek that people in my building used to hurl at their teams when they would not do well. If I ever end up attending a football match in Thessaloniki or Athens, I would be totally at home out-swearing the wildest of sports hooligans. They say – and I don’t know who “they” are – that if you know how to swear in a language, it is half the battle won, so perhaps I can say that I “get by” in Greek.
Unfortunately, proficiency with Greek cusswords is not a skill I can list on my Linked In profile and hope to increase my chances of landing a high-paying job. The way things are in Greece right now, that will probably make me eligible for an economic bailout.
I think it is time I get serious about learning a new language and I have decided to concentrate on Spanish for various reasons. For starters, I have actually attended one La Liga match in Madrid. Secondly, I have seen all Pedro Almodóvar films. Thirdly, I have always wanted to sing along Spanish songs and what can be a better incentive to learn a new language than singing along the songs that you liked but could not understand.
Hola Español, Here I come.
Originally written for The Friday Times the image is also reproduced from The Friday Times