The Mountain of 7 Languages

I had a lot of ridiculous ambitions as a child: impossible mountains made of incompatible careers, superhuman knowledge, and a complete misunderstanding of what is possible in the brief duration of a human life. I clearly should have been a vampire. I guess there’s still time. When I was younger I was convinced that my life would not be complete unless I could speak 7 languages fluently. And by younger, I don’t mean the idealistic college-age Tara leaking ambition into her linguistics degree, only to explode like a child’s water balloon left too long on the garden hose of knowledge.1 I mean, psychotically, very young: this has been my conviction since I was in elementary school. I can remember having this goal as I made up languages2 back then. Those ones, of course, don’t count.

Why 7? I have no idea. When I was a kid I was really into symbols and mystical numbers for some reason. I have all these books on dream interpretation and religious symbolism. It probably comes of reading too much and my very strange relationship with a wide variety of religions.

And which 7? It’s a rotating cast. But a few are sure. I spoke relatively good French3 until my Junior year of high school when I finally could go no higher, but was so traumatized by having been leveled up into a high school class with people who felt significantly older than me after changing schools three times, and disheartened by the knowledge that I would “never go” to France, being of low class and low income, that I wrote it off completely. I refused to speak French for, oh, ten years? And now of course I deeply regret it. So we’ll add French, for sure.

Japanese is the first language I studied out of love. I, in fact, taught myself enough Japanese to join my friends in their class after transferring schools, with one of the best teachers I ever had. But I started much earlier than that with a variety of self-study books. Which is, perhaps, the first time I realized that it really wasn’t that difficult to understand grammar and memorize a bunch of words, particularly in a language as regular as Japanese. Sadly, when I was very little, an adult told me she’d hit me if what I was reading wasn’t in English because it was weird. Which does not lead to good things in neurotic kids, given that I was probably in fifth or sixth grade and I remember it now. Careful the things you say, children will listen. I kept at it, and I did in fact go to Japan. But things fall away, and this too has been lost, and I wish deeply to regain it.

Egyptian hieroglyphs was the first code I loved, though probably in complete ignorance of the fact that the code represented a language. So we’ll add Middle Egyptian. Greek and Latin were the forbidden passions of my college years, when circumstances demanded that I try to be “practical” and set aside “useless” things because of the economy,4 so we’re at 5. Now we’re in the real depths of my interests, the challenging and rotating field of true dilletantism. As is my way, I am sufficiently adept at being bad at things that I never pursue them to completion. So I can happily say I know a bit of Polish, a bit of Russian, and dabbled in Portuguese though I don’t remember it at all. We might add Korean to the aspirational bag-o-tongues, since I am in fact related to Korean people. Or how about Chinese? The loveliness of Arabic is always calling. I go back and forth on Italian, or specifically ‘Talian, as it is written in my Montalbano mysteries. Or would it be better to pursue something near death, in the hopes of preserving it? Or something radically different from my current set, for novelty? And let’s not forget all the many languages of which I have traced grammatical outlines, only to shove them in a drawer.

I understand that I’ll never achieve this ridiculous goal. I think, though, now that I don’t work such an insane number of hours and have finally arrived where I always wanted to be–effectively retired–I finally have the leisure to return to the ridiculous aspirations of childhood. For me, loving writing is very much the same as loving language. And the joy is in the pursuing of it, not in the achieving of it. So even though I will never even see the peak, I think this is one mountain I’m glad to have sighted and begun to scramble as a child.

  1. Come on, it’s a blog. I can be as lilac and lavender as I like. It’s funny.
  2. Badly. Very badly.
  3. Why don’t we say, amusingly, good American French.
  4. Though how I was planning to be practical with a degree from Reed remains something of a mystery…