Monday, February 26, 2024

writing maps: on language

i follow the writing maps account on instagram and i've even ordered a few of their writing maps. i'm sick today and have stayed home from work. i've got a fever and that ache in the shoulders that comes with the flu. so i'm sitting in bed, propped up with pillows and my laptop and i thought i'd use one as a prompt. 

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being from south dakota, second languages weren't really the norm. in the era i graduated from high school (1985), a second language wasn't even a requirement, though a requirement was passed around then, so my sister, who graduated in 1991, had to take german in high school. i didn't even have the option, so it was only english for me.

when i got to south dakota state for my freshman year, i signed up for french with a little near-sighted woman with a white bob called madame redhead (rather a misnomer with her white hair) to fulfill my language requirement. i wasn't a natural language-learner and i always felt rather silly trying to speak it.

then i moved to california and took a russian class at fullerton community college. i was interested in russian thanks to my deep and abiding loathing of ronald reagan. my teacher, tatiana gale, was a russian emigré with shockingly purpley-red hair that i later came to know as russian red (it comes straight from a bottle). i dedicated myself to learning the cyrillic alphabet and even decided to go back to university and major in russian after tatiana, with her late 80s new age vibe, told me that she had a feeling that i should do something with russian. being 19 and looking for guidance, i jumped on that advice wholeheartedly.

like the french, learning russian didn't come easily to me - i suppose i missed the language-learning window in my brain, not being exposed to any other languages when i was younger. but i had much more motivation for russian and fell in love with the literature, so i persevered through my bachelor's degree, a master's and well into ph.d. studies. adding a summer course in serbo-croatian (as they still called it in the early days after the dissolution of yugoslavia) and macedonian and even getting that fateful fulbright to macedonia that meant meeting husband in skopje.

and meeting him meant adding yet another language, that has ended up my second most fluent language today - danish. and through danish, i can read (if not entirely understand) swedish and norwegian and a surprising amount of german, if i can't actually speak those languages. 

the prompt asked about family languages - my parents only spoke english, though dad remembered his grandmother who more or less spoke only german. that must mean that emil, my grandfather, also spoke german, though he died when my dad was 16, so i never knew him. his father julius and mother frederikke, had come over from a little town near koenigsberg in east prussia and settled on the prairies, though if i remember correctly, emil was born after they got to south dakota. they surely kept speaking their native german together for the rest of their lives. 

my grandmothers, to my knowledge, only spoke english as well - i never heard of them having any knowledge of another language. their stock was sabins and barnhardts, which i oddly know less about than the nachtigals. funny how one strong branch of the family sticks out and becomes the dominant one.

i don't necessarily know how this informs the stories i write or will write, but it surely informs who i am, or at least the foundation of who i am. i definitely feel like i don't have the full spectrum of my personality when i speak danish. who i am at my core, is who i am in english. 

i'm happy to have raised my child with more or less two native languages - as i always spoke english with her and her father (and the school system), always spoke danish. she had some german as well in school here in denmark, though, like me and french, she didn't really take to it. 

when she first went to the US, she had a bit of a danish accent, but after 5 years there, that's gone. i doubt my accent in danish will ever disappear and i'll never get the hang of those danish articles (et/en), but i'm happy that she inherited her father's language ability and not mine. 


Polly said...

That's so interesting! I have an innate hatred for Russian language even though I appreciate the literature, because I was born on the other side of the political fence. From there, Ronald Reagan and America seemed like a god and his promised land (but I was 14 when communism ended in Poland so I didn't have much in terms of political opinion on Reagan). I still hate the sound of Russian language, just like my elderly aunt hates the sound of German because she remembers the occupation, whereas I speak German and have no special feelings towards it even though I was brought up in the shadow of WWII.

One day, when I'm done with all my academic projects and the kids become a bit more independent I'll go back to learning French... who knows when that will be!

will said...

Ancestor-wise, everyone before me were peasants, farmers, tinkerers and soldiers. One side is traceable back to early America, circa the 1700's while the other side immigrated from Lithuania is the early 1900's because of poverty and Russians. He then spent the rest of his life as a coal miner and neither he or my grandmother spoke English so there was zero connection with them.

As for my real influences, family was a minor contributor. My influences came from being a Californian, Mad Magazine, books, rock n roll, TV, vintage films, the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and universities.

Revisionists like to believe Ronnie Raygun was responsible for the demise of the USSR. In truth, the Soviets did themselves in plus a Polish Pope visited Poland, said a few choice words, and the Poles, liking what they heard, did their best and the Soviets were soon history.

All Raygun did, with assistance from Nancee and Pat Buchanan, was give ideological birth to the dregs that are now ruining the US.

julochka said...

@Polly - sorry i didn't see your comment before now (i'm all too sporadically here, but so happy to see you, even if it is late). so interesting (and understandable) your aversion to russian. we are so influenced by the time and place where we grew up.

@will - i couldn't agree with you more about the president b-movie actor who was upstaged by a monkey in most of his movies...