I know there are benefits to learning a second language. It helps you communicate with other cultures, keeps you sharp and quick-witted, etc. But it’s a great deal of work for something you would only use occasionally, like a party trick. And frankly, someone completely fluent in another language is sort of irritating, because I feel like they’re just waiting to lord it over me. Also, people proficient in more than one language often possess, to me, the most annoying habit on the earth: stating a foreign noun using the accent of that noun’s origin. As in, “These croissants are just like the ones I had in Montreal and unlike the chalupa I had difficulty digesting in Mexico.” Shut up, you well-travelled pretentious dickbox! So I will not spend a great deal of time learning a second language, instead I will use that time more constructively and learn only one incredibly useful phrase in every language. Which brings me to today’s dream.
Dream: Learn how to say “I know what you’re saying” in every language.
Goal: Achievable. There’s like, what, twelve languages or something? And sign language too, I guess. Thirteen or so. In the teens. Instead of taking time to memorize lines in plays or learn the lyrics to the latest Phil Collins hit, I will learn this phrase in French, Spanish, Asian, Jew, and so on. Easy-peasy.
Plan: Use this new skill judiciously. A policeman doesn’t pull out his gun unless it’s absolutely necessary, and that phrase is like a gun designed to kill the superior attitudes of haughty foreigners. Case in point: I was on the subway yesterday with very little time to get from work to a movie with friends, and I hadn’t eaten. So I bought a chicken salad sandwich to eat on the train, and it was messy. I wasn’t being a disgusting beast, with mayo all over my face, but I guess some errant chicken bits were falling around me. Anyway, there were these older ladies, I’m guessing they were probably Italian, looking pointedly at me and talking to each other in Italian and just yukkin’ it up. Making fun of me, surely. How satisfying would it have been to finish my sandwich, stand up just before my stop, lean over to the ladies and say in perfect Italian, “I know what you’re saying?” I’ll answer for you: very satisfying.
Similarly, a girl brought her mom into the video store the other day to sign up for a membership, and they were Swedish or Danish or Chinese or something. Mom didn’t speak a word of English, in any case, and her daughter acted as translator while trying to set Mom up with a membership. Anyway, a credit card is required for membership in case you rent our stuff and never bring it back, we can charge you accordingly. Well, Mom hit the roof. Here is my estimation of the conversation that played out in front of me.
GIRL: Bring forth your Master of Cards, mother-informal. Necessary for enjoyable filmwatches.
MOTHER: Silence your lips, insolent teen! I shall not part with my Master of Cards. As for the clerkperson, I disregard her demands.
GIRL: Clerkperson is female not, mother, but rather male in gendersex.
MOTHER: Get out of this municipality! Male? With her longhairs and attitude of pre-menstruation?
GIRL: I fear so!
MOTHER: Ha ho hee! I laughing! A jocular feeling I adopt at his expense!
GIRL: Ha ho hee! I laughing additonally!
Now wouldn’t it be awesome if I were to bust in with:
JAMES: I know what you’re saying!
MOTHER: Blown is our cover!
GIRL: I am shamed.
MOTHER/DAUGHTER exuent. Blackout.
Ishared this dream with a newly acquired friend of Sri Lankan descent, and he didn’t react as I had hoped. “Kind of a dick move,” he said. “I mean, I understand what you’re getting at, but walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.” I thought about it, and about what his family’s experience immigration to Canada must have been like. You come to this place that’s supposed to be all nice and welcoming. I mean, comparatively. Compared to the U.S. anyway. And everyone is loud, and rude, and in a hurry, and nobody explains anything. “When we first came to this country,” he said, ” we knew a little English, but not enough to get by, not really. And you’ve never had that! “ I was in the majority, he explained. As a white, English-speaking male in a society ruled by and catered to white, English-speaking males, I will always have the advantage. To falsely press that advantage; to claim to understand our foreign friends when I clearly don’t, that’s probably beneath me. I thanked my new friend for setting me straight, he thanked me for being open to his criticism, and we parted ways.
It hit me only later that at the end of his little lecture I should have leaned into him, sympathetically, shook his hand and said, “I know what you’re saying.”