Are you bilingual mon ami?

I just heard a TED lecture about bilingualism, and it reminded me of something I wrote about 10 years ago. Here is a slightly edited version of that story.

Some people are bi. Bisexual, bimanual, bipartisan (disappearing species alas), bipolar, bi-something…  Me, I am just bilingual.
It is a mild affliction caused by prolonged exposure to foreigners; a fairly common condition in America. To avoid this kind of contamination, it is recommended to stay away from the natives, wash your hands often, and cross yourself when you hear something that sounds “étranger.”

Bilingualism is the subconscious ability to speak two languages fluently. It is like having some kind of mental ambidexterity, or like driving a car with a stick shift.
When you drive a “stick” you are not conscious of what you right foot, your left foot, your right hand, or your left hand are doing. You let your limbs do their own thing while reflecting on something else.
The same goes for bilingual people. They let the “bilingual” part of the brain do the talking while giving the monolingual part a rest.

The bilingual phenomenon happens naturally for some, and artificially for others. It happens naturally when parents, both natives of the same foreign land, relocate to another country.
Their children will first hear and absorb their parents’ native tongue, and then they will unconsciously assimilate English simply by proximity with the natives. Without even realizing it, these kids will turn into bilingual bots.

For some, like me, this phenomenon didn’t come naturally. I had to work for it. When I came to America, I spoke some dubious, hesitating English. I was alone, and I had to quickly learn how to communicate with the natives to fend for myself.

When you learn a second language, you instinctively translate into your native tongue everything that you hear and read. One day, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, a storefront window sign caught my attention. It said “Venetian Blinds”. This was easy to translate; I assumed immediately that Venetian Blinds was a charitable organization supporting blind Venetian natives.

As I explored the streets of the city, I noticed this ubiquitous sign again and again and I started to wonder why so many blind Italians had settled in this city. I knew that Bank of America’s founder was Italian, but did he also sponsor all these blind “paisanos” to join him?

Another day I glanced in wonderment at the SF Chronicle’s headline. It said in big bold characters “Cons escape”. The word “con” in French means stupid, dumb. I naturally translated “idiots escape”. I thought that it was a rather strange headline but “when in Rome…” and I accepted the fact that in America even stupid people can escape from a well-guarded prison.
On second thought, if stupid people could escape, what about the smart ones? San Francisco must have been swarming with smart escapees…

To become truly bilingual, you need to discard the translation mechanism and slip into the skin and the mind of a native. Smoking pot and drinking wine might also help. This operation takes a lot of practice but being curious and being a voracious reader also helps.

I remember that the word “cockpit” puzzled me (and still does) for a long time. Did pilots originally fight like mad chickens in the “cockpit”? Everybody knows that large planes have dual controls, but did pilots and co-pilots actually brawl in this cramped space? I am getting goose pimples just thinking about it.

Some words are also misleading. They are “false friends”. They sound and often spell like words you are familiar with, but they have a different meaning. Take the word “sale” for instance. I saw it in the windows of many stores. In French, “sale” means “dirty”. Were all these downtown stores peddling some X-rated stuff? I am not averse to some tasteful smut, but still…

Bilingualism is not a terminal disease and it is not genetically transmitted. Your children, and probably your grandchildren, will probably become totally immune to it.

But if you get a certain buzz speaking and (especially) cursing in the language of your forbearers, indulge in this guilty pleasure. Speak and curse away like Jean Lafitte. It is fun and highly therapeutic.


TEDx talks

I am a TEDx fan. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) provides informative and entertaining lectures on various subjects and in more than 100 languages.

Charmian Gooch, Vancouver Convention Center,  Canada. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Even though I watch many English spoken presentations, I remain (unsurprisingly) partial to French speakers. When you have been weaned of your mother tongue, it is a real treat to listen to accomplished lecturers articulating their ideas in a crisp, precise, literate French. Not the kind of street-French that you might hear around your friends or in movies.

Women particularly excel in these presentations. They are smart, lucid, convincing while expressing sometimes difficult notions to accept. And they are not afraid of calmly using four-letter words to buttress their cases.

I recently watched a few lectures dealing with relationships and marriages, and it was illuminating. Most of the people enter relationships in a secondary state called “love.” During this period, they are not being objective. They want to please and will avoid conflicts, even if something is highly irritating to them.

After a while, the fog of love subsides, and the protagonists are starting to see things more clearly. The object of their affection is not perfect and starts to lose his/her shine. And they don’t know how to cope with it. They don’t know because nobody ever taught them how to deal with these kinds of conflicts.
The first reaction of an offended person is usually to hit back. The other person retaliates and that’s when everything starts to unravel.

Before rushing into any kind of amorous relationship, it would be very beneficial for everybody involved to attend some of these lectures. And the great thing about them is that they are free, and you don’t have to go anywhere to watch them. You can stay home, tune to YouTube, and voila…
I am usually watching programs in French or in English, but TEDx is available in a multitude of languages.

In Ted talks, nothing is taboo. The speakers (usually experts in their respective fields) will tackle any subject with brio. And you have to be a good public speaker to do this. Sex, infidelity, swinging, pornography… The very subjects that nobody dared to talk about publicly in the ’50s… especially in communist fighting America… or in Trumpland.
But those things are real and need to be talked about.

TEDx is not only about sex. It is about matters that everybody ought to be knowledgeable about… and are not. And that they often refuse to explore.

Never mind the TV networks and their dull and insipid offerings; TEDx is there and ready for you.
Go for it, and you will be happy you did it.


Far from the eyes…

The French say  « Loin des yeux, loin du cœur. » Literally “far from the eyes, far from the heart”. But it is not always true.

Our dear friend Colette Van Der Meulen who followed her husband to New Mexico a few years ago has never been far from our hearts. She is a delightful person, with an ever-ready smile and a hearty laugh. You feel good just standing next to her.

We are saddened to learn that her husband just passed away at age 47 from cancer complications. He was not a pétanque player and we seldom saw him on the field, but as Colette’s husband, he was part of our pétanque family. Our heart goes out to Colette and her loved ones at this difficult time.

I didn’t know much about the man and I have always deplored this gap about the people we know. It is often after he/she passes away that we learn more about a person we have known for years. Few people knew for instance knew that my friend Jack Rosenstein (who passed away 10 years ago) was a sergeant in the US army, an outstanding telegrapher and a Morse code virtuoso during WWII.

Toward the end of the war, he was summoned to Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, and was asked to contact the Germans (through his Morse “bug”) to invite them to surrender. After a few rebuffs, they responded positively and my friend was one of the first people in the world to learn about the German surrender.

He witnessed the official signing marking the end of the hostilities at a Little Red Schoolhouse in Reims, when on May 7, 1945, German general Alfred Gustav Jodl formally surrendered to the Allies.

When somebody joins our club, it might be a good idea to ask him/her to provide a few notes outlining his/her life and career. I was delighted for instance to learn yesterday that Lamorinda’s Eddy Pay was for 27 years a San Francisco cable-car operator. One of my earliest memory, when I came to the city, was of course to hitch a ride on a cable-car. It might even have been a car operated by Eddy!

You will find a few pictures of Colette in “My Photos”.

Enjoy, and if you have a chance, let her know that she will always occupy a warm place in our hearts and that we often think about her.