Sometimes I meet the most amazing people. A few weeks ago I had a medical student who was visiting from the University of Vermont. His name was Stanislaus and he spoke perfect English, with a delightful Russian accent. As we got to know one another, he spoke of growing up in a village in Chechnya, and coming to the United States as a refugee when he was nine years old. He learned English quickly, and in short order discovered that he had a facility for languages. By the time he was in high school, he spoke Russian, English, Spanish and French fluently. When he matriculated at Berkeley, he added Italian, Portuguese and Hebrew. He wanted to be a translator for the United Nations, until he discovered the world of science and medicine. As he examined one of our Hispanic patients, he gently touched her shoulder and expressed his concern in flawless Spanish. He will make a fine doctor when he graduates this coming June.
Unfortunately I do not share this gift for foreign language. Growing up in Houston, Texas I made the misguided choice of taking French in high school. The year was 1969, and Serge Gainsbourg had just recorded a song he wrote for Brigitte Bardot with his then girlfriend Jane Birkin called “Je t’aime.” I was sixteen and smitten. Three painful years of language lab left me breathless, but far from sexy or fluent. I tried again in college, until the beautiful blonde French teaching assistant swept my boyfriend, ten years her junior, off his feet. My crowning achievement was a term paper written entirely in French about the central thesis of Voltaire’s Candide—“Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”—“All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” I had no clue that Voltaire was being facetious, and thus embraced this philosophy, if not the language, ever since.
After my busy medical school obstetrics rotation at Jefferson Davis County Hospital, my remembered Spanish consisted of two commands: “Empuje” and “No empuje”, meaning “Push” and “Don’t Push”. These phrases were not very useful in the management of cancer patients. In 2004, having practiced in a community for ten years where Spanish was the language of birth for many of my patients, I decided to attempt to correct my foreign language deficiency. I signed up for a two week intensive Berlitz course in Spanish. I was assigned two full time instructors—for the mornings, a handsome Argentinean man, and for the afternoons, a beautiful Mexican woman. Their mission was to speak only Spanish to me, eight hours a day, for two consecutive weeks. My job was to pick up enough Spanish, through inference and repetition, to be able to respond, and then shortly converse with them in their native language. At this point I had spoken no French for twenty years but despite this fact, an amazing thing happened. At the end of my two week course, these dedicated instructors were still speaking to me in Spanish. And I was answering in fluent French.
In 1984, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I took a long awaited trip to Paris. Like me, my husband had taken French in high school and college, and like me, he has no facility for foreign language. But we were determined to use our rusty French. One evening, we had dinner at a fine restaurant on the Champs Elysees. After a four course meal including a small glass of red wine, not quite contraband for a pregnant woman thirty years ago, it was time to go and we decided to ask our waiter for our checked coats. But there was a problem—neither of us could remember the French word for “coat”. We stuttered and stammered and finally resorted to pantomime. The waiter was stymied at first, but finally caught on. “Ah, Madame et Monsieur—you want your COATS!” And then, with a wicked grin, he instructed us: “Vous voulez vos manteaux!”
Needless to say, all three of our children took Spanish. Many years of Spanish. They are better at foreign language than either of their parents, and that has served them very well.