Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Second Language

I’m savoring Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto on the train these days. It took me a while to get interested in it: the premise (inept terrorists take over a Vice Presidential mansion somewhere in South America where a group of international businessmen and politicians have gathered for dinner and an opera recital) was just too contrived for me and the introduction of the characters seemed a little too much like an order of one of each from central casting.

But, Patchett is clearly fascinated by closed communities and when she gets going, she explores them with grace and great sympathy. That’s central to the workings of Patron Saint of Liars (set in a home for unwed mothers) and even in Truth and Beauty, her account of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. There, she lingers over both the claustrophobia of the friendship and the wider cloistered worlds of privileged writers moving from colony to colony, from Provincetown to Bread Loaf to Yaddo to the Bunting. At the heart of all this, I suspect, is a deep fascination with Catholicism in general and monasticism in particular.

I’m not done with the book yet, so won’t (can’t) offer any summary judgment, but I was struck by something in it. Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese CEO and opera fan for whom the party is given, begins to learn Spanish during his captivity. He finds the task much easier than the Italian he had tried to study with the aid of language tapes and libretti at home in Japan and he understands that, with something at stake, in the presence of native speakers of the language, it is far easier to learn.

In itself, this is the banal truism of all language teaching. It struck me because it chimes with what I’ve seen in the life of my own beloved toddler. I speak French. When I was a minute or two pregnant, we went to Paris and I came home with an armload of French children’s books, which I still sometimes read to her, but I am the only person she knows who speaks French. By contrast, everyone at daycare speaks Spanish. Dora speaks Spanish. Mr. Noggin’s friend Henrietta now speaks Spanish. Ask her to count in Spanish, she can get to ten. Ask her to count to ten in French, and she makes up funny sounds: un-duh, twa, tree-ree, shoosh….

Her father explains that that’s because no one she knows speaks French. “Mommy speaks French.” “You do? Does Daddy?” “Well, no.” “Who else?” “Jacques Pepin, Jacques Brel, Jacques Cousteau, Jacques Chirac…” Francophile that I am, I could not, at that moment think of a single French person, male or female, who was not named Jacques. “Does Tree-Ree speak French?”

Ah, Tree-Ree. We’ll have to ask her. But her story, the story of the pretend friend, is still developing and will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, like Patchett’s Mr. Hosokawa, the beloved toddler is sticking to real languages that real people, not just Mommy, speak.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting language thoughts-- as a former French teacher (and francophile). And I wonder if you've read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essay, "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli?" It's about his daughter Olivia's imaginary friend...
(also included in Best American Essays 2003).

Unknown said...

Thanks. I love that essay--hadn't thought of it in a while. Yes, Mr. Ravioli indeed. Very charming. Thank you for reminding me of it: it brought a smile...