By Steve Slavin
Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about a science book
Don't know much about the French I took
These were the first four lines of Sam Cooke’s hit, Wonderful World, a hit song written by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert in the 1960s, which was re-released several times over the next 2twenty-five years. I can definitely identify with the fourth line. To say that I have virtually no facility with foreign languages would be quite an understatement. In fact, over the years, I have demonstrated a mind-boggling incompetence in the four languages that I had been forced to study.
Growing up in an upwardly striving Jewish middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn, I often heard how important it was to know a foreign language. And, while no one ever explained to me just why this knowledge was so important, we were all expected to get with the program.
“Steve,” my friends would keep reminding me, “you’re such a ‘nonconformist!” But no one could ever convince me why being a nonconformist was such a bad thing.
When I was eleven, like all of my friends, I was coerced into going to Hebrew school. There I learned just enough Hebrew to get bar mitzvahed. I barely managed to learn the alphabet, let alone memorize the half dozen lines of my portion of that day’s Torah reading.
Most of us found Hebrew school incredibly boring, especially on those sunny afternoons when we could have been outside playing ball. If we were caught talking to each other, the teacher made us write, “I must not talk in class” hundreds of times in our notebooks. We wrote in English. Perhaps if we had learned to do this assignment in Hebrew, some of us might have gone on to become Talmudic scholars.
Many years later, I was dating a woman who lived on Long Island. One afternoon, her ex-husband, Barry, came over to see their three children. As soon as he walked in, we recognized each other from Hebrew school: “Shlomo!” he yelled across the living room.
We shook hands, and pounded each other’s back. Then we began to reminisce about those long ago days in Mr. Feinstein’s class. Marilyn smiled as we went on -and -on about our classmates, the school, and the old neighborhood. Finally, their kids came downstairs and Marilyn and I left for brunch and a movie.
After we got back, and Barry was saying his good-byes, he and I even talked about getting together again. Marilyn seemed very pleased that we had gotten along so well. As soon as Barry left, she burst out laughing. “Steve, do you know what Barry said about you?”
“That you were a terrible Hebrew student.”
“Trust me, Marilyn. He was far too kind.”
In fairness, Hebrew is a rather hard language to learn. It has a very different alphabet with unfamiliar letters, and you read from right to left. And then, like removing the training wheels from a bicycle, they actually take away the vowels and expect you to know how to pronounce each word. There should be warning label – “Torah reading is not for beginners.”
In middle school, we were forced to learn a foreign language. The choices were French or Spanish. The word on the street was that Spanish was for dummies, so there was a good deal of peer pressure to learn French.
For most of the next six years I studied French. How much did I learn? Barely enough to not get left back. Occasionally, I would overhear people speaking French, but I had almost no idea what they were saying. A couple of times, I tried to join in, beginning with “Pardonnez-moi.” But they just ignored me.
My friends consoled me by suggesting that the French were basically very rude and snobbish. Still, I persisted. And then, just after having been snubbed once again, I was amazed to hear a woman calling after me.
“Monsieur! S’il vous plait!”
I turned around. She continued, “Please, sir! I must apologize! My friend and I would love for you to join us. We did not realize that you were speaking French!”
But my French DID come in very handy when I was in graduate school. You had to pass two language exams. So taking the French exam was – if you’ll pardon the double entendre – a no-brainer. Luckily it was a written exam. Had it had an oral component, the examiner would probably have shared the French women’s conclusion that I was not speaking French.
OK, one down and one to go. Back in those days, most graduate school departments required competence in French and German. I bought a paperback German review book, vowing to learn at least five new words every day. That worked for about three days. But then I began to forget some of the words I had previously memorized. Within a week I had misplaced the book, and it somehow never turned up again.
But over the years, I had managed to retain just a handful of German words, like kopf (head) and mund (mouth). Maybe learning German wasn’t such a great idea.
And yet, much later, I was able to put my German to good use. I had recently met a woman who taught psychology at Brooklyn College, and I knew she was fluent in German. One afternoon I left a message for her with her department secretary which included four German words. And just to make sure she knew the message was from me, I told the secretary my first name.
A few hours later Elizabeth called me back, and, in a very sheepish voice, asked if I had left a message for her.
Yes, of course I did. And then I repeated the message, including my name.
There was a long pause. Then she told me that she had recently broken up with someone whose name also happened to be Steve. And that he had been stalking her. It had gotten so bad that she was ready to report him to the police.
So as soon as she got the message she called him back and really tore into him. “’How DARE you call my office and leave that obscene message?’” When he denied that he had called her office, “I called him a liar.”
“No, Elizabeth, that was ME!”
“But I was sure it was the other Steve. He speaks excellent German. And you don’t even speak a word of it!”
“Well, maybe FOUR words.”
“Steve, how did you ever come up with that message?”
“You mean, Professor Schweinekopf from the Sheissmund Institute?”
“So YOU’RE Professor Pighead from the Shitmouth Institute!”
I never DID learn any more German. But I still needed to pass a second language exam. And that’s when my friend Linda, who I knew from high school, provided some much needed inspiration.
While I struggled with French, Linda whizzed through French and Spanish. If Spanish was a language for dummies, then explain why Linda bothered to learn it.
James Madison High School had some truly great teachers. Among them were Linda’s French and Spanish teachers. When Linda, who had been going through a period of extreme sleep deprivation, screwed up both her French and Spanish final exams, her teachers were concerned enough to compare notes. So, they met after school and went over both of Linda’s exam papers.
It turned out that she had written all her answers to the French exam in Spanish, and – You guessed it – all her answers to the Spanish exam in French! When the teachers translated her answers – from French into Spanish on the Spanish exam, Linda had a perfect score. And when they repeated the process, she also had a perfect score on the French exam.
The next day, they met with Linda and gave her the news. She was the first student they had ever encountered who knew her work so well, she could take her exams in her sleep.
Linda told me this story when I was trying to figure out what I could do to fulfill my second language requirement in grad school. It became very clear to me that if you can learn French, then you can learn Spanish. And because of the many overlaps and common word roots, my knowledge of French – while admittedly less than stellar – would give me a leg up in learning Spanish.
Unfortunately, most graduate school departments still subscribed to the belief that Spanish was indeed for dummies. But when I explained to my departmental advisor that I wanted to specialize in economic development, he agreed that Spanish would be very useful. Still, the big question remained: could a pig-headed student teach himself enough Spanish to pass the exam?
The answer appeared to be a resounding “No!” In my first attempt to learn the language, I decided to buy a set of Spanish language instructional audio tapes. Having just come from the dentist’s office where I had been given a shot of Novocain, I was slurring my words as I inquired about the tapes. The man behind the counter looked at me with pity, probably thinking how heartwarming it was that this poor guy, who could barely speak English, was trying to learn another language.
Well, if he could have heard me pronouncing Carlos, while rolling the “r,” followed by VenezWAYla, he might have changed his tune. The only problem was that I needed to pass a WRITTEN exam. There would be no extra credit for my expertly rolled r’s.
Then I had a much better idea. I would read El Diario, New York’s hometown Spanish newspaper. I especially enjoyed looking at the sports pages because I already knew the names of the baseball, basketball, and football players, and could pretty much get the gist of what I was reading. Even the news pages covered rather familiar territory.
But face it: El Diario was just another tabloid — one that was even worse than the New York Daily News and the New York Post – both of which most literate New Yorkers considered barely worthy of being used to wrap garbage.
One day, when I was on the subway reading El Diaro, a man speaking Spanish asked me for directions. For a few seconds I wondered why he thought I knew Spanish. But when I glanced down again at what I was reading, it was pretty obvious.
“Señor, por favor. If I knew Spanish, do you think I would be reading this piece of shit?”
After a year of on-again, off-again studying, I decided to take the language exam. They gave you a few shots, so what did I have to lose?
“It’s just a practice exam,” I kept repeating to myself. I opened the booklet and read the instructions. There was a long passage from a Spanish text. I needed to read the passage and then answer some fifty multiple-choice questions. That was IT?
There was no way I could pass this exam. Spanish-to-English dictionaries were not allowed, but even if they were, I would still fail. But since I was here, I might as well give it a shot.
After I read the first sentence, I knew I was home free. The entire passage had been taken from a Spanish edition of Das Kapital. I happened to have just read this book – in English of course. There are all kinds of tricks that students use to pass exams, but how many had ever gotten help from Karl Marx?
It’s been many years since I’ve tried to master a foreign language. But now I’m a writer, and some of my books have been translated into other languages, including Chinese. My niece Sophie, who speaks conversational Chinese, taught me a few words. One day, I walked into a neighborhood store where I often shopped and greeted the owner, “Nee how?”
She smiled, and asked me how I was. I showed her my book. She saw my name and began to laugh. I wondered what could be so funny.
“This is YOUR book?”
She was still laughing. “So,” she said, “you must be very gifted in foreign languages. You not only SPEAK Chinese, but you even WRITE in Chinese!”