The Spectacularly Multi-lingual Europeans

June 2012 

Madrid, with its ubiquitous jamon (ham), is a culinary obstacle course for vegetarians. On my first day in Spain’s vibrant capital, I set off from my hotel near Plaza del Sol for a vegetarian cafe I had found online. Here, I encountered my first linguistic surprise -- the Asian waitstaff greeted me in flawlessly charming Spanish. Asians speaking Spanish? An unexpected discovery, but naturally, immigrants learn the language of their new communities, whatever it may be.

The following week in Italy, I met Africans speaking exquisite Italian and chatted with a Maldovian immigrant working at the pensione where I stayed in Venice. While she spoiled me with espresso and cornetti, she recounted in her newly acquired Italian how she had struggled to find her way among the meandering calli of Venice without being able to ask for directions.

Surprise #2 was observing how amazingly multi-lingual many native Europeans are. In Europe, 44% of citizens speak multiple languages, while in the U.S., the number is closer to 10%. My Italian friend Elle, who lives among the prosecco vineyards of the Veneto, speaks Italian, German, and English. She is teaching all three to her two young children. One week, Elle speaks to them only in German, the next in English. The youngsters learn Italian from nonna (grandma) and in school. Fortunately for me, the household was speaking English during my visit.

At an outdoor cafe across from Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, I sipped a cortado and sampled a tortilla (an omelette in Spain) after admiring Picasso’s Guernica. The Frenchmen at the next table drank beer and switched effortlessly from French to Spanish when the waiter approached. They proceeded to order their meals in perfectly enunciated Spanish.

Everywhere I went in Spain and Italy, the residents’ command of multiple languages impressed me. Josef, the Barcelona-born guide on my delightful bus tour of Andalucia, could effortlessly chat with me in either Spanish or English about the contributions of the Moors and Jews to Spain’s culture before being ousted by the Catholics. But when Josef counted our heads to make sure we were all back on the bus, he said, “un, dos, tres, quatre, cinc...” He instinctively reverted to Catalan, his native tongue and the language of Spain’s northern region of Catalonia. Before planning my visit to Spain, I didn’t even know such a language existed. However, Josef insisted that German was the superior language for its precision and the beauty of its poetry.

I was also intrigued to learn of my friend Elle’s preference for English. At her house, I noticed that her To-Do list was written in English -- the third language she learned and polished while living in California. Perche? I asked her. She explained that she learned Italian from birth and German at school when her mother relocated for a better job. English, however, was the language Elle had chosen to learn. Then she said something that I can’t stop reflecting upon...English was her language of refuge. To Elle, English is moderate -- comfortably situated between the formality of German and the casual, imprecise inclination of Italian.  

As for me, my language of choice is Italian -- I’m learning it now as an adult for its sheer vocal beauty. It’s spoken in essentially one nation, so it is not a practical language to acquire. And yet, it’s the fifth most studied language among Americans, ahead of Chinese and Japanese. While I struggle with the verb conjugations -- a challenge in all romance languages-- I persist in my lessons because of Italian’s alluring charm. I cringe to think how tedious it is for immigrants to have to learn a language they are not passionate about. Their motivation is survival.

At a bar in Venice, I used my beginner’s Italian to order cicchetti (brushetta and sun-dried tomatoes wrapped in grilled eggplant).  The proprietor asked where I was from. “Sono Americana,” I said. He informed me that I spoke Italian with a Mexican accent. I had no idea my Spanish was seeping into my Italian pronunciation. C’est la vie.

Despite my clumsy words, traveling with some foreign vocabulary has ample rewards. It’s priceless to understand the gondoliers in a cafe in Venice giving each other back rubs, but clarifying for the teasing barista, “Solo amici,” -- just friends! How rich to understand the graffiti scrawled across a bank in Granada: Ladrones - (Thieves.)

Back in California, I practice my Italian with the Indian manager of Taj, who happens to have spent some years in Italy. How hard must it have been for a Punjabi speaker to learn a romance language, and later to learn English? I shall never again complain of conjugating verbs into the Passato Prossimo. For immigrants adopting a new home, a foreign language is a bridge to a better life and integration.

And as invigorating as it is to speak a foreign language while traveling, there is sweet solace in retreating to one’s native tongue. I recall the welcoming embrace I felt when I sat next to fellow Californians on the train from Verona to Venice. After a week speaking Spanish in Spain and a hectic day of negotiating airports, shuttle buses, and train stations with my limited Italian, speaking English with these American businessmen was comforting beyond words -- words spoken in any language. The link to home was as consoling as the moment I had spotted California poppies growing in the Alhambra gardens.