I’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.
I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica and Italy gave me a chance to do that. The desire is fanciful because I’ve never taken up this language-learning business in earnest, like Jhumpa Lahiri with her private lessons and her wholesale removal to Rome purely for the purpose of Italian fluency. Rather, I had the good fortune to live abroad for short bursts of time early in my life, and there’s something about the particular exercise of the mind involved in speaking a different language that seems to engage my pleasure centers, so I do it when I get the opportunity.
In this recent case, I shared an apartment for three weeks with Dagmar, a warm but English-challenged teacher from Hamburg who participated in the singing workshop I took in Corsica. For that spell of time, I not only had the pleasure of French all around me but also the happy task of translating announcements and singing instructions into German for Dagmar. When the transaction was binary, English to German, I didn’t do so poorly, though my German was acquired at a ski-hotel job in the Austrian Alps in the 1970s and has grown terribly creaky at the vocabulary joints. When I had to go from French to German, though, my brain fried a little. I had to pass through a wall of English, as it were. Sometimes I’d find the French-English cognate, like robe meaning dress, and then reach for the English-German cognate, which brought me over to cloth and then to kleid. Needless to say, Dagmar had to exercise patience. I also found that the tatters of my German remained relatively fluent and nicely accented, giving the very false impression that I actually knew how to speak the language, so that Dagmar and I had many discussions in which she ended a long series of quick observations with Nicht? and I nodded with what I hoped was appropriate enthusiasm or commiseration. And occasionally a word would swim up out of the darkness, as when Dagmar was trying to describe her nieces as Zwillinge and somehow, before both of us drowned in frustration, the word twins just came to me. Where had I learned it? Not at that ski hotel, I’m sure. But there it was, like a bright penny found deep in the swampy pond.
Corsican, and a sort of Corsican-inflected Latin, also flowed through that part of the journey and gave me a bridge to the next bit of babbling, the Italian I insisted on exercising during the coda of the trip, a few nonsinging days up the coast of Italy. I say “insisted,” because by that time my sensible husband had joined me. He does not speak Italian, and many of our interlocutors in Lucca, Pisa, Genoa, and points between possessed perfectly serviceable English. Still, selfishly, I would say something like Preferisco parlare italiano; ho bisogno di pratica, which would initiate a flood of Italian that I then translated very badly for my patient fellow traveler. (We must do this same thing to people who admit to speaking a little English; if they say just one phrase fairly well, we start conversations full of idioms and conditional clauses, and probably miss the growing looks of bewilderment on their faces. Note to self: Watch that habit, in future.)
But Italy was where the babbling really mattered. This was my second brief sojourn in the bel paese since beginning to try out the language, and I could feel my fluency develop much the way you can detect the change in your muscles if you actually initiate an intense workout program — the firming-up, and also the ache. At night, trying to sleep, I’d hear again the long descriptions of the dinner specialties. I’d puzzle out the parts that flew by me the first time around (and that on one occasion presented me with mussels, to which I’m allergic, in an otherwise delectable antipasto). The toned-up soreness of the exercised parts of my brain kept me awake. At the end of the day, my cheeks and lips felt tired from making new sounds. But I’m at least twice as fluent in Italian as I was 10 days ago, and babbling got me there.
A 9-month-old baby, the daughter of one of the directors, was with us during the singing workshop, and she babbled constantly. She’s on her way to language. Listening to toddlers in France and Italy, I’m struck by the sounds of their beginning to speak mother tongues from which I will always stand at some remove. We learn by letting the words run from our mouths as water runs over stones in a brook, and if the stones are the mistakes made by toddlers (to our endless delight) and klutzy linguaphiles like me (to potential annoyance), we can still make a little music. Or as Tennyson puts it,
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.
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