Would you please have sex with that chair?

The most commonly known foreign languages (inc...
The most commonly known foreign languages (including Irish as a second language) in the Republic of Ireland in 2005.

Je parle francais.

Hablo espanol.

I speak two languages in addition to my native English — “speak” means conducting a general social conversation. It does not mean discussing nuclear physics or how to perform some surgical intervention.

Nor do I have a handle on the boatloads of idioms that make one a truly elegant speaker; one of my favorite blogs is this one, which sends out a fresh French idiom — almost as good as a baguette! — every day. (Elle a du chien, je crois.)

I wanted to speak both languages to work as a foreign correspondent; by the time I’d acquired the necessary skill and experience, journalism had begun its lurching descent into cost-cutting and foreign bureaus worldwide were being shut down. Tant pis!

But being someone in New York who speaks two foreign languages has helped me win jobs, both staff and freelance. It seems to awe the uni-lingual. (Educated Europeans speak 4, 5 or 6 languages and think little of it.)

I’ve lived in France and Mexico, and have visited both places many times. I hope to retire to France, so speaking the language well (better!) is important to me. My American husband, Jose, who is of Mexican descent, had a fun time with me when we visited Mexico…as everyone turned to him and began chatting in Spanish, which he understands but does not speak. He’d point to me, the white Canadian girl, as the one who actually does speak it.

Speaking French gave me the best year of my entire life, on an eight-month fellowship based in Paris that sent me all over Europe to do reporting on someone else’s dime. It allowed me to work in Montreal, where I met my first American husband, at the Gazette. It allows me to think seriously about retiring to France, as no language barrier daunts me.

Maybe this is simply having grown up in Canada, which has two official languages, French and English. Growing up there means seeing many items labeled in both languages. It’s completely normal to meet fellow Anglophones who speak fluent French — without which any government job is difficult-to-impossible to obtain.

I never understand people who disdain the notion of learning another language, a second or third tongue. It has opened doors to me professionally and personally, allowing me to make friendships that would have been otherwise impossible, like those with Mila (Brazilian) and Yasuro (Japanese), who shared that glorious fellowship in Paris. I don’t speak Portuguese or Japanese, but we all got along famously in our second shared language.

I lived in Mexico for four months when I was 14, and quickly learned two new adjectives, often hissed suggestively at me by men on the street or the bus: fuerita and juerita. (Little foreigner and little blondie.) I had an older, fatter friendย  — she was fuerota/juerota.

Of course, trying to communicate in another tongue means making some delicious mistakes.

In French, the verb baiser can to kiss or to have sex with. The meanings of words, in Spanish, can change significantly from one country to another — so coger (to physically pick up, one meaning) can also mean to have sex with. Yes, I’d like you to have sex with that chair, please!

You can imagine…

My mother, traveling for years alone through Latin America, once declared passionately that she had many toilets! (Tengo muchos excusados...meaning, she thought, “reasons.”)

Do you speak several languages?

Which ones?

When and where do you use them? Why did you learn them?


31 thoughts on “Would you please have sex with that chair?

  1. I only know English and Spanish. I’d like to learn either Cantonese or Mandarin so I could say I could speak with most folks on this planet, but then I start thinking about Hindu, French, German, etc and my head wants to explode.

  2. I enjoyed growing up 8 miles from Canada because of this… Sesame Street in French and English was required in our house. To this day, beginning French throws me at the feet of my mother, licking pudding spatulas and wondering about that neighboring country of ours where gas was cheaper!

    Today, after living and working in Europe and paying out the nose for Goethe Insitut training, I am fluent in German. Living now next to the Mexican border, I know how to get along in garden variety Spanish… so to speak… and my gardner appreciates my attempts. But, I do get us along fairly well allthemorefor trying, across the border. Thanks for the thoughts. Renee

      1. Oh, yes. I do get to use the German. For years i taught it to children in a program i developed. And we have found many German friends in Phoenix. Likewise, we have raised our children bi-lingual and therfore get to use it at home. It works well when i want to save my daughters from embarrassment, and not so well in public when i want to rag on some idiot thinking they wont understand. Once in w while, like recently, that fails!

  3. The only Language I can have a conversation on nuclear physics (if i can keep up) would be english ! which is not my mother tongue. I speak Russian as my mother is russian, and 3 different Indian languages, one of which is my fathertongue (thats not a word in english, but they should have considering all the mixed marriges). I have lived in Dubai for a while and have Iranian friends so i have picked up some Persian(Pharsi), My Partner is Dutch, so i am trying to learn dutch now… I am finding it difficult to learn languages now though. Interesting post, i do think knowing languages opens many doors. In my travels i see it bring surprised smiles on local faces, when they hear you try to speak their language.

    1. This is amazing! What an array of languages…

      When I used to work retail, here in suburban New York, I would switch into French and Spanish as needed — you should have seen people’s faces! Not only because few Americans speak another language (Anglos anyway) but the rude assumption is that no one working retail would be able to.

  4. I speak Mandarin (it was my second language in school), rudimentary Malay, and could understand Cantonese. Singapore, where i grew up, is a melting pot of migrant cultures, and local pidgin is a mash of the primary languages. Cantonese was probably the first language I spoke fluently. My mother’s family are Cantonese and my aunt cared for me when I was very young, when mum and dad were at work. However, she went back to Malaysia when I started primary school so that was that.

    I haven’t spoken a word of anything but English for 13 years though, living in Australia. Suffice to say I’ve lost it all because I haven’t had much opportunity to use them. Which is a crying shame, because they are valuable in so many ways.

    Some years ago, hubby and I transited in Hong Kong from San Francisco to visit his parents, who were living in HK at the time. Having not spoken or heard a word of Cantonese in 2 decades, I was amazed at how much of it came back to me in the course of a day. While speaking it was still too much of a hurdle, understanding the quick-draw chatter of locals got progressively easier by the hour. At some point I distinctly remember being able to order food from a hawker with a mixture of halting Cantonese, some Mandarin, and sign language thrown in for good measure. That was a win!

  5. I’ve been debating trying to re-boot my rusty Spanish, which was once strong enough to work as an interpreter for refugees to Canada from Chile. I have become too pragmatic and think “why bother?” which is totally the wrong attitude.

    I think it’s so cool to be able to converse across/through cultures.

  6. I speak French, but read French much better than I speak. I lived in Montreal for two years and learned the language while there. Mon dui, j’aime beaucoup Montreal.

    I don’t have a knack for languages, but I am so glad that I had the opportunity to learn.

    Now that I’m on the west coast again, I try to keep up with my French through writing on Facebook with friends from back east and listening to French radio.

    I agree with you about the importance and benefits of speaking several languages. My mom was German and my father was Greek (was, because they are no longer living). I wish they had spoken to my brothers and I in their language.

  7. I love your post! Apart from my mother language, which is Czech, I started to learn English and German when I was a kid, then picked up Russian when I was at uni and now I am playing with the idea of learning Korean ๐Ÿ™‚ Ages ago I learned French for a year but there is hardly any imprint of that in my brain lol

    I think the hardest part of learning language is actually keep brushing it up and further developing the skills once you reach comfortable conversation level.


  8. i’m always embarrassed when someone from another country/language speaks english to me. it makes me feel ignorant to the rest of the world. i’ve had four years of spanish, but i’ll never know enough to have a conversation. i can translate menus and such, but that’s about it.

  9. I bet if you really worked at it, you’d push into much greater fluency. I think the trick is actually living in that language for a while. My French stays pretty strong even though I so rarely get to use it, but I lived in Paris for a year and that helped a lot.

  10. Hey Caitlin!

    Indeed, an anglophone who speaks other languages is hard to find (I’ve met quite a few and none of them spoke any foreign language)!

    However, it IS understandable that Europeans know a lot of languages…I mean, when you’re minutes or hours away from 1, 2, 3 or 4 countries, hell, it becomes SO much easier to learn their languages…I’m in Brazil (yes, you’ve got “Mila2” writing in your blog :P), it’s impossible for me to do that! LOL I’m sure I’d speak like…10 languages if I were european, I love learning them ๐Ÿ˜€ (bah, who cares about mistakes and not using the correct idioms ๐Ÿ˜‰ :P)

    I started learning English when I was 11, then when I was 14 I decided to learn French, and then a few years ago I stumbled upon Italian ๐Ÿ˜› Of course I don’t speak any of them well enough!! LOL (oh and btw, I couldn’t talk about nuclear physics in ANY language, not even mine :P) But that doesn’t make me frustrated because languages only make sense if you live them and use them constantly (otherwise you forget them very quickly) – I learnt that the hard way the day the first English-speaking person stopped me when I was walking down the street to ask for some information and I just froze…:P I had been learning English for 4 years then, and still…I just couldn’t turn the “language switch button” from portuguese to english, you know? It’s very different when you’re in a classroom learning things…it’s a controlled environment, you have enough time to think before you answer and you know that you can fall back on your own language at anytime and everyone will understand you. Now, when you’re crossing the street, see someone in danger and have to shout “Look out!!!”…you need to have internalized the language in order to have that kind of automatic reaction.

    Anyway, I fortunately had the chance to practice those 3 languages in loco (not only in my city ๐Ÿ˜› I lived in Quรฉbec for 3 months, I have visited the US twice and I’ve also spent a month in Europe) and it was really cool! But even if I hadn’t done any of that (and it’s SO ANNOYING when someone tells you “Wow, you speak that language X so well, have you lived in country X?” and you say “No, actually I’ve never even visited it, I’ve never left Brazil” and they go like “NOOOOOO WAAYYYYY, that’s impossible!!! How can you learn a country’s language without even having ever been there???”) I firmly believe learning a new language is basically getting to know another world (and therefore being a much more well-informed and complete person, aware of other realities) – even if you don’t have contact with anyone who speaks that language, and even if you don’t have access to magazines, TV stations, radio shows and newspapers from that country, just by reading any kind of literary works (even if they’re not contemporary, and even if they’re crappy) you get a glimpse of how different things can be, how another culture thinks, etc. I don’t know, I’m suspicious to talk about this subject because ever since I was a kid I had this curiosity and wished to learn new languages (and my parents weren’t even foreigners and I didn’t have contact with anyone from another country, so I have no idea where that came from – music, probably!) and I never thought about it as a career opportunity, I just like learning them, I think it’s fun and helps you grow ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now I’m thinking of studying Italian further (I’ve only been studying it for 4 years), but I’m already thinking what my next language will be…Spanish doesn’t sound like much fun because it’s too similar to the languages I already speak…of course it’s different, but this time I was thinking about learning something completely different, such as German. Of course, my dream would be to learn Russian or Japanese or Arabian or Greek or any language that sounds really beautiful and that has a different alphabet…but I’m afraid of those, what if I can’t even memorize the alphabet LOL!!!!

    It’s a good thing I’ve never met anyone “who disdains the notion of learning another language” because I wouldn’t even know where to start arguing with them…I’d probably just punch them in the nose! LOL

  11. I speak Spanish, and understand exactly what you mean about those inter-country differences and variations. I studied abroad in Argentina which has its own set of idiosyncracies that you don’t learn until you get there (and often don’t learn until you’ve already committed the mistake! – “coger” and “concha” among two of the many…) They usually make for funny stories, though!

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