Friday, April 7, 2017

Tower of Babel, Cacophony, or Multilingualism on Testosterone?

So this morning I Skyped with my family in Holland (actually, it was morning for me, evening for them).

My mother Ata lives in Holland. She will turn 104 in a few months. This week, my sister Madeleine, her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson were all visiting Ata. They are all from America, but my sister Madeleine is an immigrant, like me.

In addition, there were a couple of Dutch ladies there, wonderful women who volunteer to provide my mother with immense assistance. Altogether, there were more than half a dozen people in my mother’s Dutch flat while I was skyping with her from Sacramento.

So this skyping event was exceptionally international, which is not unusual in my family.

We were all born in Hungary. I was seven when we left that country, and my twin sisters were six. The three of us soon forgot Hungarian, but it has always remained our mother’s primary tongue.

Because our family lived in Paris during my and my sisters’ formative years, French became the language of choice between us and our parents, and it has remained so. But after we moved from Paris to Holland in the 1950s, my sisters and I switched to Dutch 100% with each other and with all our teenage peers. But with mother we continued in French. Then, my sisters and I all moved to Anglo countries. I to California, Madeleine to Boston, and Juliette to London. Throughout most of our adult lives, we have spoken English with each other.

So this morning, when my mother first picked up my Skype call, we started in French:

“Bonjour maman, comment ca va?” I inquired.

We chatted for a moment and then my sister Madeleine came to say hello - in English:

“Hey Tom, how are you doing?”

My mother joined in, asking me in English:

“When are you coming? Have you set the dates for your visit yet?”

It’s unbelievable: At 103, the woman’s mind remains practically 100% together! She is able to switch from one language to another on the spur of the moment...No sign of Alzheimer or dementia whatsoever.

I answered her in English, and a moment later one of her Dutch volunteer helpers joined the conversation, in Dutch of course:

“Hi Tom, hoe gaat het? Kom je gauw?” (How are you, are you coming soon?)

So now it’s Dutch. 

My mother now continues in Dutch. She asks me about my latest writing projects, I ask her about her finances, etc.

At some point, she is at a loss for a word, so she switches to Hungarian:

“My birthday this year is on a Vasarnap...Tu seras ici le 17 Septembre?”

Although my Hungarian is practically non-existent, I still know that Vasarnap means Sunday. 

Because the Dutch lady is still on screen, I answer in Dutch:

“Ja ja, ik ben er, op je verjaardag... (sure, I’ll be there on your birthday).

“I’ll have to miss the party,” my sister chimes in, in English.

And so it continues.

We are not bilingual; we are not tri-lingual; we are at least quadri-lingual. Get togethers like this are incredible. I am actually the weak link. I am only fully fluent in three languages, and my fourth language, German, is only passable. My sisters can add Spanish and German to their fluent languages, and my mother of course has full command of Hungarian, for a total of half a dozen fluent languages.

Her ability to switch languages instantaneously is miraculous, at her age. To be sure, she does mix them together at will. We call her hybrid speech “Atanese.”

An example:

Let’s say she just finished her dinner, and she is getting sleepy and tired. She might say something like this:

“Well, that was heel lekker. Mai maintenant je suis helemaal afgekreveerd! I want to dormir bientot...”

Translation: Well, that was quite yummy. But now I am totally bushed. I want to sleep soon.

The word “afgekreveerd” is absolutely hilarious. It’s Ata’s invention. Etymologically, it is derived from the French “crevé” which is slang for “exhausted.” and then changed into a Dutch past participle whose prefix “af-“ usually denotes that your are done, finished, wiped out... Brilliant!

© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved

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