guh guh guh guh guh guh gesundheit Learning to speak and understand a foreign language, it's said, is best undertaken during the early years, while the language-processing apparatus is still fresh and relatively unencumbered by the patterning that ultimately shapes our communication. It's said, too, that the most effective method is immersion in the culture and language of interest; rote memorization of foreign words and phrases doesn't work nearly as well.

I can testify to the veracity of both arguments, having been born into the language and culture of German immigrants, themselves abruptlyand, I'm sure, jarringlyimmersed in the American language and culture well past the age at which such a thing might come easily. Although I've never considered English a "second language," the first five years of my life would have been so heavily influenced by the language and customs of my family that it wouldn't be entirely meaningless to ask which language came first.

As is so often the case, the most meaningful answer probably lies somewhere between the two poles. It's more likely the languages were absorbed in parallel, owing not only to the immigrants' facility with English, but to the daily imperative resulting from their own immersion in the language and culture of America. You can't talk the talk if you don't walk the walk, and both are difficult when your pants are full.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when the speech problems began, but I know I hadn't yet cleared my fourth year of grammar school. We had only recently returned from a six-month stay in Germany, where virtually everything I had learned in life became the object of my classmates' derision. They particularly objected to my tainted interpretation of their native tongue; they said I didn't know how to "cut the mustard." Many of them carried small plastic squeeze bottles containing a powerful mixture of red pepper and other irritants, which they discharged into the classroom whenever the teacher called on me to answer an especially challenging question. At the time, it hadn't yet occurred to me that gesundheit could be used for more than mere sarcasm. I didn't know it might amount to a curse that would confound me for years before it ran out of gas and sputtered off into the weeds on the outskirts of town.

At first I tried to draw attention away from my speech impediment by pointing to the window while vigorously nodding my head. This worked for a time, but eventually the teacher caught on and made me keep my hands in my pockets whenever it was my turn to get up and write something on the chalkboard. I began inserting extra syllables in words in the hope of creating momentum, so as to propel my speech outward, away from my mouth. But the effort overwhelmed my constitution, leaving me red-faced and vibrating, and with even more of a load in my already overloaded knickers. No matter how much I tried to prevent it, my language was nothing more than an incongruous mix of English and German words, with "guh" taking the place of glottal stops.

Looking back on it now, it isn't difficult to understand what happened. Two dissimilar languageseach with its own rules of syntax, grammar and spellingsimultaneously deposited in the same space have no other recourse. They will go to war. Eventually one will emerge victorious, but in the meantime there will be carnage, and there will be chaos, and even small dogs won't be able to cry havoc without tripping over their own tongues in the process. This, I believe, is exactly what happened to me.



  1. Anonymous10:51 AM UTC

    As far as learning another language, is concerned, can I put in a word for the global language, Esperanto?

    Although Esperanto is a living language, it helps language learning as well.

    Five British schools have introduced Esperanto in order to test its propaedeutic values. The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester and the initial encouraging results can be seen at,%20S2L%20Phase%201.pdf
    You might also like to see

    Confirmation can be seen at

  2. Thanks for the (straight) comment, Brian. We don't see many of those around here anymore for some reason.

    I haven't heard much about Esperanto lately -- used to be the talk of the town, language-wise. Glad to know it's still . . . well, living.