“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 joking 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.