Languages: Turning Enemies into Allies

“S and I got engaged!” I announced to my family, just before my second year at university, showing off my emerald and diamond ring.

My grandmother did not miss a bit.  “Congratulations, my sunbeam! Does he speak any languages?”


“Oh, dear,” she said, her smile waning.  “His family has no means, then?”

Right or wrong, I come from a family where it is taken for granted that any parents with sufficient funds will, as a matter of course as evident as the movement of the planets, make sure their offspring learn, first – languages; second – to play a musical instrument.  To understand this, it is important to know that, for our family, music nourishes the soul, whilst languages enrich the brain.  For us, learning languages is not a luxury or a hobby.  It is a necessary tool of survival.  It has been engrained in us over the past four generations that you could lose all material possessions in a heartbeat, on the whim of a natural disaster or a change of government.  Before you know it, you might have to move to another country and, for that, the more languages you have at your command, the better.  As Dolly Levi says in Hello, Dolly! “If you have to live hand to mouth, you’d better be ambidextrous.”  I imagine that families who have lived in the same country for several generations, or who own property, such as houses, might find it difficult fully to enter into this frame of mind.

My grandfather used to say that, with every new language you learn, you acquire a new personality.  He was right.  Speaking a language is not just about finding your way on holiday.  It is about being able to switch between different ways of thinking and feeling.  I am more or less quadrilingual.  I feel most comfortable debating issues in English, cuddling children and animals in Russian, expressing outrage in French, and being joyful in Italian.  When asked which is my mother tongue, I stumble.  I do not actually know.  What is a mother tongue? Is it the language in which you formed your first words, as a baby? If so, I would say, Russian.  Or is it the language in which you are most proficient? In that case, I would say, English.  However, as a teenager, I would have said, French; and, a couple of years before that, Italian.

I did not enjoy the process of learning any of these languages.  In fact, I positively hated it.  It was an uphill struggle filled with frustration, humiliation and long periods of hopelessness.  I did not choose to take classes in these languages for fun or interest.  I learned them fast, forced by circumstances.  In a way, my survival depended on it.

I was born in Italy, to a non-Italian family.  My Russian-bred, Armenian grandmother, who shared with my mother the daily job of bringing me up, taught me Russian.  It was the language we spoke at home.  As soon as I ventured out, I learnt to play in Italian with the neighbours‘ children.  Because, in those days, in Rome, speaking a foreign language in the street would attract relentless stares and gaping mouths, I would switch to Italian as soon as I was out of the family flat.  When I was six, my mother sent me to the Overseas American school in Rome.    Children learn languages easily.  Every new word is a building block.  They do not slow down their thought process by translating in their heads, or by complicating matters with grammatical logic.  They simply imitate and associate.  Within a few months, I was fluent in English, complete with U.S. accent.  So, I spoke Russian at home, Italian in the street, and English at school.  All was well.  That is, until we moved to Athens.  I was eight.  Thanks to Russian I could just about distinguish the Greek Cyrillic alphabet but the language, itself, was nothing I could relate to my existing tongues.  I made friends with Greek children and their parents.  We played in the clay garden, and went swimming among the rusty jellyfish in the ice-cold, limpid sea.  After a few months, I could hold my own in Greek – at least enough to play with my Greek neighbours.

My first language trauma hit me – in more ways than one – when I was nine, and we moved to Nice, in Southern France.  The headmistress of the local state school decided that it was paedagogically sound to put a nine year-old who spoke no French, into the Cours Préparatoire of five and six year-olds.  Recess was torture time.  Most days, I would be surrounded by the said five and six year-olds, pushed back against the school yard wall, and kicked in the shins by their miniature feet.  The ritual included shouting things at me which, of course, I could not respond to, since I did not know what they meant.  I repeated some of the words to Madame, hoping for an explanation, but she glared and waved her finger at me, saying, “Non!” When I tried to retaliate physically, I was told off in no uncertain terms by the permanently yawning Madame, for picking on les petits.  My wordless gesticulations and pointing at my black and blue shins did not appear to convey the message clearly enough.  The only thing to do, was to spend every evening, before bed, memorising a few words from Le Petit Larousse Illustré.  Luckily, I soon learnt to produce guttural ‘r’s, elongated vowels, and enough words to string into sentences.  I moved to another school, was put into a class of older children, and learnt to topple little plastic soldiers with glass marbles during recess.  I was on my way to becoming an honorary Niçoise.  When, at the age of nineteen, I scored 14/20 in writing and 18/20 in oral, in French, at the French Lycée in Rome, beating my French boyfriend to the slight annoyance his mother, I felt I had arrived.

Arrived – just in time to pack my suitcase for England.  All I knew about Albion, was that half my blood came from there, through my father.  Of course, my English, neglected during the years of contending with French, had turned somewhat rusty.  I landed in Cambridge, on a cold, damp, September night, and went to sleep in an attic room with a sloped ceiling and a luke warm radiator.  The following morning, I awoke to the cawing of jet-black crows hopping on a bright green lawn beneath a lead grey sky.  I was brimming with hope for my new life in a country which, I felt, was my home by right.

The English did not kick.  They stung.

“What did you say? Oh, how quaint, I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that.”

“Where did you acquire that American accent?”

“Gosh, you do have a healthy appetite.”

“Are you cold? Really? I guess we’re brought up to be quite stoical, here.”

“Well… I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly…”

After many a night crying myself to sleep, I vowed to beat them at their own game.  I began memorising words from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, keeping a journal in English, referring to – rather than pronouncing – the ‘r’, and mentally repeating after people, as they spoke.  I forsook French entirely, and missed the rigueur of its grammar.  English was like water.  It slid out between your fingers as you tried to grasp it.  So I learnt to swim in it.

A few years later, when I had to explain the language of a Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, to a group of native English actors, I had a lovely feeling of – well, just how could I put it nicely..?

My languages have graduated from enemies to allies.  They are my Virgils, guiding me through various dimensions of thoughts, hopes and emotions.  They are my spies, which I send out on reconnaissance missions.  They are the Arlecchini who capture laughter for me.  They are the faithful servants who bring food to my table.  They are my steadfast allies, no matter what the government of the moment.  They are the architects who build me a bridge, whenever I want to cross a river.

Scribe Doll

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30 Responses to Languages: Turning Enemies into Allies

  1. Pingback: Still Working … « Afternoon Tea With the Sphinx

  2. Yes, we heard some of it too. It is very good. I very occasionally look at his blog.
    Thanks for the follow. I had bookmarked your blog after your post about handwriting and found I was missing your “musings”, hence the follow. In spite of our very different early experiences, I find much to relate to in what you write about. For almost every story you tell, I have a parallel one, but I don’t want to be boring by commenting every time.
    Your experience on the bus with the loud music reminded me of an incident a long time ago. Two young French speakers were behaving in an antisocial way on a crazy golf course at the seaside. I was following them round with my two young children and they were taking far too long. Someone else was following us. In the end I told them off as politely as I could in broken French. They moved off and the person behind said,”I don’t know what you said to them, but if I could have done, I’d have said the same!”

    • scribedoll says:

      Sue, please, please never hesitate to leave comments. As a blogger, yourself, you know how encouraging it is when people leave comments. It’s always so interesting to hear other people’s stories in response to what you’ve written. It spurs you on to write more.

      Thanks again.

  3. This post opened a whole new window on life for me. My parents did not even move house while I was living at home! I am fascinated by words and often remember the exact circumstances of learning a new word or phrasee. I wonder whether that is the case for you, too?
    Incidentally, my fledgling blog is about the English language.

  4. Katherine, once again, you wow me with your storytelling magic. What an interesting piece. I wonder if you could write an entire book on this subject. I have always admired people who think in one language and speak in another; people who travel between several mindsets in the course of a day. I am fascinated by how this must affect their capacity to communicate, to grasp, to interpret. A short book perhaps?

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you, Jessica. One thing that has always puzzled me, is when people ask in which language I think. I don’t think in a language – I think in concepts. Doesn’t everyone? The drawback – at least in my case – of my languages, is that I speak each with a slight, non-descript accent. Many a time, have people interrupted a conversation with, “You’re not from here, are you?” (almost as though they can’t validate my opinion unless they know how to pigeon-hole me). Really puts my back up.

      Actually, I am writing a book… :–)

  5. denizsezgun says:

    Honestly, once again, it is a beautiful post. I’ve found out at last – what attracks me the most; it is the way you start a post from your roots up to today while describing your living, relationships, languages, humanity. It is a profession.
    I find your grandmother’s influence on you magical.

    Regards from the east…

  6. laura@eljaygee says:

    This narrative is like running through several countries and lives on jet skis. I take my hat off to you – as we English say

  7. Mythreyi says:

    Languages are indeed one of the most essential skills you possess, especially if you are someone who travels a lot.
    Here, in India, every state has it’s own language, and it plays a huge role in how you adapt to the peculiarities of the people of that region. It’s always more than just finding your way around the place. In fact, with English becoming more and more universal, the importance of learning the local language becomes less obvious- a much more subtle necessity- to people. You don’t technically need to know the language for most of the essentials, but as you try to live among the community, you understand just how important it really is.
    That said, I must confess that learning a language- without attending a class, maybe- becomes a lot more difficult after you grow up. As a kid, I learnt to speak in English, Hindi and Tamil, and I barely remember having to put in any effort into the learning of the languages. For the last ten years, I’ve lived in Bangalore, and have been attempting to pick up the local language (Kannada). The most I can hope to do, after all this time, is understand the gist of the conversation- details still escape me, and I don’t yet have the courage to attempt speaking it myself. I want to learn French and German and Spanish as well, but sometimes I wonder if I will ever manage to do that.
    On a somewhat similar note, I’m hoping to watch English Vinglish today- a movie about an Indian housewife and her struggles to master the english language. A rather interesting theme for a bollywood movie, I think. 🙂 And on another weirdly related note, I just finished reading Chetan Bhagat’s novel 2 States- a love story between two people who come from two different communities- trying to be together despite the linguistic and cultural walls that separate them.
    A very interesting post, and an absolute pleasure to read.. 🙂

  8. “They are the faithful servants who bring food to my table.” You have a lovely way with words, and now we know why.

  9. Tim says:

    “Music nourishes the soul, whilst languages enrich the brain” – I am going to have this macramé’d and framed on my wall! Thank you for a wonderful piece.

  10. Anna says:

    Every time I read your posts I feel marvelled by the subject and by the delightful style! Since I was a child I have been fond of the English language. I started learning it long before it came to me as a school subject: mommy used to sing the only sonng in English she knew (“One day when we were young One wonderful morning day…”). Mother had to spend her best teen years in evacuation far from her home town Smolensk during the World War II, in Siberia, working hard, going hungry. There was an American there who in rare spare moments taught English to the girls. And they found great pleasure in studying a weird language which had been unfamiliar to them up to those moments. He instilled in my mother a taste for English. After the war she returned to Smolensk, which had been heavily destroyed, to start working as a book-accountant. But so great was her interest in the English language that she applied for the English language correspondence course in Moscow. When I look at her test papers now I cannot stop wondering how could it ever happen that a young girl in an after-war town in the 40s without any possible help accomplish such difficult tasks they sent her from Moscow!! Times were hard and unfortunately my mother was compelled to leave the course. But her love for the language transmitted itself to me. I drank it in with mother’s milk, if one can say so. English has been my profession and my hobby all my life. My second language at University was German. My daughter speaks English, French and now she is learning Italian which she got to love during her stay in Italy. Learning languages is awesome! Every day I surf the Internet to find something new and interesting about English. I am subscribed to you and to a number of super English language sites (Luke Thompson for example). Thank you very much for all your articles! They are a real pleasure!!!!!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for sharing such an inspiring, touching story about your mother. I am glad you subscribe to Luke’s podcast. It’s brilliant – isn’t it? Actually, Luke and I used to be colleagues. I wonder – did you ever attend the school where we both taught?

      I studied German at school, for four years, but now can’t even string a sentence together. I hope, someday, to study it it again. It’s such a beautiful language. I still remember the first few lines of Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig”.

      Всево доброво


      • Anna says:

        Dear Katya,
        Thank you so much for your reply to my comment !! Honestly, I looked forward to receiving one)). It’s nice to know that you do not leave unnoticed your subscribers’ comments. As for Luke’s podcasts, they are really great! No, I have never been a student at the London school. Do you know why? Because I’m 58 years old now (though my daughter is just 22) and I have been teaching English at a secondary school and at a vocational school since 1976 (really long)). But I’m of the opinion that you keep on learning all your life. And it’s a pleasure! I subscribed to Luke’s podcasts for the sake of the English which has been my love for more than 50 years now and for the sake of learning. I just snuggle on my sofa, switch in to Luke Thompson’s podcasts, listen to them and feel happy!! Once again, thanks a lot!
        impatiently waiting for more posts from you!

      • scribedoll says:

        Dear Anna,

        I only asked about Luke because I wondered how you had come across his podcast. He is a truly brilliant English teacher and has a fantastic, sharp sense of humour.

        Of course I respond to comments! After all, if readers take the trouble of commenting (which means so much to me – it can sometimes feel as though you’re writing these things and sending them into space, without any idea of who, if anyone, is reading them), then the least I can do, is respond.

        Thank you for your lovely support.

        Katia :–)

  11. What a lovely and wonderfully impressive piece of writing this is. At one point, I had under my belt English (American English, my native language), French, Italian, classical Greek, classical Latin, some modern Irish Gaelic, and Old English. I even made a two months’ attempt to learn Sanskrit before I gave up. Unfortunately, all of the languages I learned were learned in a classroom (par for the course anyway with the literary Greek, Latin, and Old English) in the days before learning by immersion, which means that I could read far better than I could speak. These days, speaking seems to be more important to a lot of people, and I would ideally have liked to learn both. Anyway, I’m sadly now back to only English again (except for the odd bit of French which I can translate here and there) because it takes practice and repetition to stay in contact with a language and not forget it. So, I’m envious of you to have learned so young, because the younger you learn, the better you retain, they say. Kudos!

    • scribedoll says:

      Your range of languages is truly impressive. What a shame that you have forgotten them. As you say, you forget what you don’t practise. Still, it is a bit like riding a bicycle. Are there any foreigners in your city, whom you could make friends with and practise, say, speaking French?

      Thank you for your comments :–)

  12. Sue Cumisky says:


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