“Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.”
~ Willa Cather, My Ántonia
I recently read this quote in the classic American story of pioneers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries settling what we now call the Midwest. It seemed strange to me that someone would never have heard another language while growing up and would actually remember the first time another person spoke a foreign language.
I was born and raised in Southern California and can’t remember the first time I heard someone speak a language other than English. I think it happened so often and from such an early point in my life that it didn’t seem remarkable.
Spanish was always a part of the audio background as I was growing up, even though I only spoke English. Growing up in Los Angeles, I’m sure I heard other languages too, though the first time I heard those isn’t something that registers in my memory, either. It certainly wasn’t startling the way it would be to a nineteenth-century pioneer child in the middle of the United States, far from port cities where residents would interact with people of different backgrounds more regularly.
When I read this in My Ántonia, I was shocked. In this pioneer hardship story, this random line that most people would just gloss right over was the idea that stuck out to me. It was almost impossible for me to imagine never having heard a foreign language before.
I tried to break it down into intellectual pieces that would be more imaginable, such as, “How would I feel if I had never heard such-and-such language before?” But that doesn’t quite match the gravity of what this child mentions in passing. There are lots of languages I have never heard before – think of all the dialects around the world that are unknown to most of the population – but that’s not the same as never knowing how another person might speak without using English, as was the case for this character.
It’s hard to fathom never having heard any words other than English ones, or possibly not realizing that there are other ways to express the same concepts in ways other than how we say them in English. Our English terms are not universal ones, and it changes your mindset to realize that cats, say, are not cats everywhere in the world. Those same creatures are Katzen or chats or gatos or any other number of things in other places.
As hard as it was to try to remember the first time I heard a foreign language spoken fluently in my presence, it was much harder to try to think back to a time when I didn’t know any words in another language. I may not have learned a foreign language until later in my life, but I can’t remember a time as a child when I wasn’t eating Mexican or Chinese food in LA and asking my Mom to make me a quesadilla. (Food words count here, and they are the first introduction many of us have to a language.)
As a young child, I didn’t pay too much attention to who spoke what language. The first time I remember distinctly thinking about it actually was when I went to kindergarten in LA. There were children in my class who spoke no English, and I remember wondering how they were going to be students in the class without understanding the teacher, who spoke only English.
I don’t remember how this communication barrier was resolved (and maybe it never really was), but I do remember thinking how happy and lucky this little trio of chatty girls who spoke no English must be, since the teacher couldn’t yell at them or make a punishment stick. Most of the rest of us were able to understand her English words when we got in trouble, unfortunately, but that group of girls seemed untouchable because the teacher and they couldn’t speak to each other.
I moved in the middle of kindergarten, and I sometimes wonder what happened to those sweet little girls. We never actually spoke, since we didn’t share a common language, but I imagine they learned English at some point shortly after we last saw each other.
How about you? Do you remember the first time you heard someone speak a language that was different from your native language? Or did you feel like you were always surrounded by other languages, whether or not you spoke any of them?