Tongue-tied

Did you ever wish that you could speak a foreign language? Yeah, me too.

Did you ever actually go out and learn one? Yeah, me neither.

When I was fourteen, my family traveled to Europe for two weeks on the good graces of my grandmother (and I’ve been pining to go back, ever since.) We had the same tour guide for the entire trip, a lady named Brigitte who was rumored to speak a whopping eight languages. Whether this was an exaggeration or not, she definitely spoke the language of every country we visited: that included German, Dutch, French, and of course, English.

A year previously, I had tried to learn French from a book and tape series. After many weeks of diligent study, I could count to five and say “Where is the toilet” – and that’s it. I didn’t even know how to introduce myself. By the time my family made it to France, we were all at the mercy of the charming Brigitte. I was fascinated; I simply could not believe she could keep that many entirely different languages straight, in her head. I freshened my resolve to learn another language, any language – surely I could manage just one?

A quarter of a century later, I still speak only English.

Recently I read a magazine article that made a passing reference to Sir William Jones (born 1746), a British philologist (someone who studies languages.) Jones was a linguistic prodigy, learning up to 7 languages as a child. By the end of his life, he knew around 40 languages, either fluently or partially, making him a “hyperpolyglot” (a polyglot is a person who uses several languages.)

Jones was amazing. But he looks positively lazy, next to Giuseppe Mezzofanti.


Mezzofanti was born in Italy during Jones’ lifetime. He became an Italian cardinal, and he remains the world’s most famous hyperpolyglot. By the end of his life, it was generally accepted that Mezzofanti spoke 28 languages and 50 dialects fluently, and another 30 languages somewhat less fluently.

Keep in mind, these guys lived in the 18th century, when foreign travel was torturous and time-consuming, and when there was no technological help whatsoever, no way to record anything aurally. The industrial production of paper hadn’t even begun yet. Both men started learning languages as children, which is a key point: most experts agree that the earlier in life an individual starts learning other languages, the easier it is.

So what about the present day – are all the extraordinary linguists long gone? Not quite. Meet Alexander Arguelles.

Arguelles is an American – which is surprising, in itself, since only about 9% of Americans speak more than one language (as opposed to 60-70% of people, worldwide.) In the 1980’s, when he was in college, he studied French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Medieval French, Gothic, Old High German, and Old Norse. He earned his PhD and became a language specialist, subsequently learning a truckload of foreign languages.

In recent years, Arguelles has focused more on reading languages than on speaking them; his website contains a list of the languages he can currently read, and a self-ascribed “score” for each, indicating how well he understands it. There are 33 languages and dialects on the list. The highest score, 100, is for his native English. The lowest score, for Modern Greek, is 80.

So there you have it.

As for me? I would still dearly love to learn another language – but ever since the babies were born, I actually seem to have lost ground in my mastery of the English language. Things aren’t looking so good for ambitious new brain projects.

I still harbor a secret (shhh) dream of living in Italy some day. Perhaps I will just have to pretend I’m deaf, then. (By the time I ever get to Italy, I probably will be deaf.)

Smile and wave, girl, smile and wave.

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6 thoughts on “Tongue-tied

  1. I speak English and Spanish, though mostly English. My Spanish seems to be disappearing from my brain or wherever it is that language resides when not in use. When my mother died two years ago, there went the last person in the world I ever spoke spanish to or with. Well, except for an occasional neighbor down the block. If you don’t use the language, it goes. Simple as that. I am now primarily English speaking and have been for years.

    I understand your frustration, though.
    It’s not an easy thing learning another language, unless you’re a child or have some sort of mysterious capacity for it. I would love to be fluent in French, but instead I’m happy just to be able to read a few words of it here and there. (Mostly I just translate it into Spanish.)

    It’s funny, when I was a little kid I thought EVERYONE spoke English and Spanish. My feeling is that a foreign language should automatically be included in a child’s curriculum, beginning in kindergarten.

    The truth is, if you did move to Italy and immersed yourself in day to day living there, you’d probably pick up the language soon enough. Your kids certainly would. 😉

    • I hope it’s like riding a bike, though? It would come back to you?

      I think foreign language ought to be required in grade school. They could give parents the choice between two or three. I don’t know how it would work, but it seems important.

      Oh, I want to go to Italy…

  2. Oh my gosh – I remember just going on a mission trip to Mexico and feeling so out of sorts. It’s ridiculous that I only know English and, as has been said, not too well sometimes. We seem to still have issues determining when to use their, there or they’re, or your vs. you’re. When simply reading facebook statuses it makes me crazy and I want to correct people so badly. One time I accidently typed an extra “o” on the end of what was supposed to be “to”. It terrified me when I realized my error and had to go back and correct myself in the comment below my status.

    Here I am worried about the proper uses of to, too and two, while others are speaking 80 languages?!?! That is insane – I am too amazed at them to be ashamed of myself. I’ll just keep trying to use capital letters when appropriate. 🙂

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