Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bilingual-Curious No More

They (they being old people like Betty White) say that growing old is a time for reflection.  While my aging process has been filled more with pondering the reflection of my rapidly sagging body parts than with reflecting on more productive things, I’ve decided to make a shift and spend some time taking stock of my life’s achievements and lavish myself with some praise.  Now, while I am not a fan of tooting one’s own horn – though I hear that happens more often as one ages and adopts a fiber-filled diet- I’m going to give tooting a try…toot as in sing my own praises, not that fiber-filled kind of toot.  Anyhoo… after some reflection, I’ve determined that of all the things I’ve learned and achieved in my 39 ¾ years, that achievement of which I am most proud- aside from my child as that was no solo effort-…(insert drum roll here) …..(continue drum roll here)….my most awesome achievement has been becoming a bilingual member of our global society and using that power for both good AND evil (like using it for conversation instead of just to ask my son if he farted in a language the general public surrounding us wouldn’t understand). 

I came to this decision last week when the Turk’s college friend came for a visit.  He speaks little to no English which meant that it was time for me to break out my hard-fought second language in a moderately fluent way.  Notice I say moderately fluent – while my Turkish family would argue that I’m pretty much there, I hardly believe that one who speaks generally in the present continuous tense with the vocabulary of a 3rd grader should be considered fluent.  I often get confused between indefinite past tense and simple present tense, but I hear my accent is dashing and my darling hubby has the good sense to stroke my second-language ego at every turn- teşekkular tatlım (that’s a Turkish shout-out to my Boo).   My vocabulary is limited to things I know firsthand – I can explain in beautiful fluency how to make any number of Turkish pastries or how to control a group of unruly 5th graders, but a political discussion or details of a bank transaction are beyond my vocabulary grasp.  But the Turks as a whole are incredibly forgiving and accepting to any foreigner who dares to take on their convoluted language and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

The understanding that I am now officially bilingual instead of just bilingual-curious only actually became clear to me the other night in the presence of our guest as I watched Chelsea Lately in English while partaking in a full Turkish conversation and managed to add my token smart-ass commentary at appropriate times in both languages.  And what smart-ass doesn’t dream of the ability to share their wisdom and wisecracks with two worlds? Perhaps the measure of fluency from hence forth should be when one can master a running smart-ass commentary with accuracy, one is fluent.

I’ve long been in awe of the bilingual.  The fact that a human brain can rapidly switch between two different forms of spoken communication stuns me as I so often get tripped up by tough words like ‘the’ and ‘a’ in English.   Bilinguality is tougher for us old people than for the youth of today whose bilingual lifestyle is basically a given from the time they first catch an episode of Sesame Street or crack open a Dora the Explore book.  39 and ¾ years ago, Cookie Monster didn’t count his cookies in Spanish as well as in English and Dora’s parents hadn’t yet immigrated.  Sure, Maria and Luis lived on Sesame Street but clearly flaunting their bilingual lifestyle was too risqué for Public Television in 1974. In my tiny elementary school in the middle of 1970’s Iowa, we got the one push towards multiculturalism when we were faced with the entrance of a hippie teacher (hairy armpits and all) fresh out of her idealistic education classes.  I believe that was the year we learned to count to 5 in Spanish.   That of course was all undone with the reappearance of an ex-nun 3rd grade teacher who had no time for such nonsense.   In high school I toyed a bit with Spanish but after I was forced to take on Margarita as my Spanish name when I had explicitly requested Conchita, I checked out.  So this grand realization that I had met a lifelong goal without really trying is stunning to me and clearly something to be celebrated.  I’m not delusional, I know I’ll never have the kind of fluency my hubby has in his second language or that I’ll ever be capable of delivering a grand address filled with really big words and correct tenses to the Turkish people when Ron Paul sends me on my Vice-Presidential mission to Istanbul to foster greater love and understanding of America.  But I can certainly hold my own and even had the language skills to give birth in a second language so for an old lady, I’m doing alright.

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