Bilingual idiot

I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I actually went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was fairly easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.


I want YOU!

You! Yeah, YOU!

When translating “you” into Spanish, be careful! “You is the second person singular subject pronoun. Quick! What is the plural of you? I hope you didn’t say “y’all” or “you guys”! In English, the plural of “you” is “you”! I occasionally have this argument with students who don’t seem to believe me because I’m a Spanish speaker. But it’s true. The second person plural subject pronoun in English is “you.”

Often my students will insist that the plural of “you” is “y’all” or “you guys.” Or, get ready for this, the even more emphatic “all y’all” or “youse guys.”* So how do I convince my students that the plural of you is you? I quote President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” “See!” I tell my students. “He addressed himself to ‘my fellow Americans’ and then he spoke to them calling them ‘you’!” They usually stopped disagreeing by this point, but I’m convinced that I haven’t fully convinced them. I think they resent being corrected by a native Spanish speaker.

But back to the Spanish lesson about translating “you” into Spanish. Since you is both singular and plural–And for you students of Spanish, oh, yes! It’s also formal and familiar!–you can translate “you” into Spanish as: tú, vos, usted, vosotros, vosotras, ustedes. Remember that tú, vos, vosotros, and vosotras are always familiar. Do not use them to talk to someone you just met or don’t know very well. Use usted and ustedes for more formal situations ¡Ojo! In Latin América, ustedes is used as the familiar second person plural subject pronoun instead of vosotros and vosotras.

So there you have it. I’m addressing myself to all of my readers. And by that I mean all three of you!

* I won’t even mention that the plural of “you” is “yin” in the state of Virginia!

Vote, vote, vote

My receipt for voting.

Lucky us! We get to vote on Ground Hog’s Day! So if a candidate sees his shadow … Oh, never mind. Ground Hog’s Day is such a silly holiday, anyway!

I got one phone call to vote for Jim Ryan for judge. When I said I would vote for him, the caller asked if I would like to put Jim Ryan sign on my lawn. Then, last week, I get two unusual calls from politicians soliciting my vote for David Hoffman. One was from Paul Vallas who doesn’t even reside in the state of Illinois anymore. And the other was from Miguel del Valle who also solicited my vote for David Hoffman in Spanish. I must admit he spoke Spanish very nicely. I’m not sure if Paul Vallas really wanted me to vote for David Hoffman. Or if, as I suspiciously tend to believe, that he wanted to remind me that he still existed so that I would vote for him upon his imminent return to Illinois politics. But that’s just me.

I also received voting instructions for early voting in English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. Okay, I’m not actually sure if it’s Mandarin Chinese, but I wanted to sound knowledgeable. Everyone wants to sound knowledgeable around election time, no? In Chicago, all the polling places are multilingual. If you’re an American citizen, you’re entitled to vote even if you don’t speak English! But this is typical of every election in Chicago.

A Chicago election is always very confusing. For whom do I vote? There are always a few obvious candidates for me. But others, I never even heard of them! I know we’re supposed to vote for candidates intelligently. However, I only seem to be aware of candidates who raised enough money to pay for radio and TV ads. So how do I vote for everyone else? Including the completely unknown candidates? I vote the Chicago Way! I vote for all the candidates I knew from before election day would get my vote.

What happens to my votes for the rest of the candidates? In a general election, if I’m not sure for whom to vote, I vote the straight Democratic ticket. It’s the Chicago Way! In a primary election when I have to declare myself a Democrat, I vote for all the Irish candidates. It’s the Chicago Way! Of course, I once met a Judge Cunningham who was elected as judge because of his Irish name. Judge Cunningham was African-American! So I guess voting for an Irish or Irish-sounding candidate is very egalitarian. It’s the Chicago Way! Next in the pecking order are female names. If it’s a female candidate with an Irish name, so much the better. That was in the old days. Now that we have more Hispanic candidates, I automatically vote for a Spanish name. The election slate is so long for some elections that very few people would know every candidate very well. However, I want to exercise my Constitutional right to vote! Even if it’s the Chicago Way!

You suck!

Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2010

I saw this advertisement in the real estate section of the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. I remember when the word “suck” was a swear word! Perhaps I’m just on the verge of becoming a grumpy old man, but maybe that’s the reason I still remember when “suck” was offensive. So imagine my surprise when I saw this ad.

When I was growing up back in the 1960s, an age before political correctness had swept the land, people would purposefully insult each other. No holds barred. If someone had a physical deformity or a mental defect, that was exactly what the insulting party focused on. Racial slurs were not only permitted, but wholeheartedly encouraged.

But getting back to the word “suck,” most people who use the word today don’t even realize why they’re using it. Once, one of my students said, “Exams suck!” and many of the other students in the class agreed. She had a quizzical look on her face after she said it. Then, she said, “What does that even mean?” It seems no one knows what “suck” even means nowadays. No wonder I hear it on the radio and TV all the time. That’s because no one knows the history of the word “suck.”

But getting back to the 1960s, if someone wanted to insult you, they would–in so many words–say that you performed fellatio, back in an era when oral sex was frowned upon. The main offense was to insult someone’s manhood by implying he was homosexual. If someone did something stupid–and just about everything qualified as being “something stupid”–the person who didn’t like what you did would say, “You blow!” Sometimes people would hurl the insult to pedestrians as they drove by. Sometimes it was incorporated into everyday conversation: “Why aren’t you inviting Allouicious to your party?” “Because Allouicious blows!”

Somewhere along the line, “blow” received fierce competition from “suck.” Both words referred to the same sexual act of fellatio. The only point of contention seemed to hinge on the direction of air flow. But both terms were equally insulting in a homophobic manner. No one argued that! If you did, people would not only say, “You blow!”, but also, “You suck!” It was the great philosophical debate of my generation. Is it better to blow or to suck?

Well, flash forward to the present, and the people using the word “suck” are unaware of the history of the word “suck” whenever they use it. Just think about it. Can exams really suck? Who wouldn’t like oral sex to relax during a grueling exam. If exams literally sucked, students would love taking exams. And, then afterwards, the students would smile and say, “Yeah, that exam really sucked!”


Estamos charlando y divirtiéndonos.

“Hablar” is “to talk” or “to speak” in the general sense of emitting intelligible sounds from the aperture of the human brain housing group. “Charlar” is “to chat” or “to talk to someone.” “Platicar” is also a synonym of “charlar.”

“El idioma” refers to the langauge which we use to communicate. For example, “yo te expliqué la diferencia entre “charlar” y “hablar” en inglés. Pero, cuando dije “in the general sense of emitting intelligible sounds from the aperture of the human brain housing group”, un lenguaje particular porque podría haber dicho lo mismo con otras palabras. O, sea, el lenguaje es la selección del vocabulario. No importa si fuera en inglés o español.

Language jokes

Dr. D. laughing in Spanish.

As you may have noticed, I like jokes. Here’s a riddle. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

A Swiss man, looking for directions, pulls up at a bus stop where two American tourists are waiting.
Entschuldigung, koennen sie deutsch sprechen?” he asks. The two Americans just stare at him.
Excusez-moi, parlez vous francais?” he tries.
The two continue to stare.
Parlare italiano?” No response.
Hablan ustedes español?” Still nothing.
The Swiss man drives off, extremely disgusted. The first American turns to the second and says, “Y’know, maybe we should learn a foreign language.”
“Why?” says the other. “That guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”

A man tells his friend, “I’m going to learn German.” His friend says that German is a hard language to learn. The man replies, “How hard can it be? I’ve heard three-year-olds speaking it.

“I’m glad I wasn’t born in France.” “Why’s that?” “I don’t speak French!”

A man gave his wife a parrot. The next day, they’re eating dinner and the man notices that the parrot isn’t in its cage. He asks, “Where’s the parrot.” The wife says, “We’re having it for dinner.” “What? That parrot spoke three languages!” “Well, why didn’t it say something?”

A student fell asleep during an English professor’s lecture on pronouns. Upset, the professor wakes up the student by asking him to name two pronouns. The student replies, “Who? Me?” “Very good,” says the professor.

This linguistics professor was lecturing the class. “In English,” he explained, “a double negative forms a positive. In some languages, such as Spanish, a double negative is still a negative.” “However,” the professor continued, “there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.” Immediately, a voice from the back of the room piped up: “Yeah … right …”

Learning English

Holy Cross School

Since my parents came from Mexico, Spanish was my first language at home and we never spoke English. When I started kindergarten at Holy Cross School, I didn’t know any English. So when the Sister Mary Joseph talked, I did what the other kids did. I sat next to Bridget, the smartest and prettiest girl in the kindergarten. I didn’t understand Sister Joseph’s instructions because she spoke English, so I watched Bridget’s every movement. When Bridget took out her crayons, I took out my crayons. When Bridget took a nap, I took a nap. Kindergarten was not that complicated. When Bridget got up and got in line, I got up and got in line. But I got in trouble. Sister Joseph walked me back to my desk. I noticed that the entire kindergarten class was laughing. I had followed Bridget to get in line to go the girls room!

I always had a problem learning English. I didn’t quite understand everything correctly. I liked standing outside the corner bar. You see, they had a sign that read, “3 IDs required. No minors allowed.” I was always waiting to see these miners wearing helmets with lights on top to come to the bar. And then they’d get really mad because they weren’t allowed in the bar and start a fight with the bouncer because he wouldn’t let them in. But I never saw any miners try to get in. I guess that sign really worked.