Getting back into the rhythm of speaking Spanish as the main language has been mostly a smooth process, but not without its kinks, especially in a diglossic society like Catalunya. Though I'm fluent (and teach Epani and have plenty of epani-epik efrens), living here reminds me of just how much I don’t know, and for that reason it’s humbling and instructive. As well as I speak, each day sees tons of phrases or words I don’t have that I ‘need’—or at least think I need if I’m to be as native as possible (kind of like when you hear a song that is so good that your 40+ gig iTune collection seems utterly incomplete without it). This is a contradiction, of course: either you're native or you're not, and no permanent adult expatriation can truly bridge that gap. Hence the distinction between ‘fluent’ and ‘native’. That I consider myself a 'frustrated fluent speaker' while my students think I should maybe worry about other stuff goes to show how relative language learning can be. As a long-time teacher of English and Spanish as a Second Language, this fact never ceases to amaze me, and has become one of the pillars of my larger philosophy of relativism (which I'll save for another post).
As with Bea’s English, my French is (or was, when I was there) at a level where I could “defenderme”, or ‘defend myself’ well enough, but I still make mistakes all the time; and because I want to speak better and am convinced I should be able to, I tend to be ashamed of mon niveau. Which is, of course, silly, as the French themselves are still tooling at grammar and spelling in their senior year of high school, nevermind mastering the subtleties of past perfect subjunctive, which probably requires a graduate degree. I was speaking with a French friend of a friend on the beach the other day, and found myself drowning in similar sounds and verb conjugations. It’s quite a uniquely disarming feeling when your brain simply cannot separate one from the other and you end up sounding like a fool—but in a mostly funny and understandable way. Ah, the art of communication! J, an American friend of mine who has been living in Barcelona for going on 3 years now, speaks Spanglish que te cagas (‘that you shit’, or, very well), and intuitively mixes words (plus Catalan a veces) into an organic and fluid whole. Her personalized style suggests that some words better express the essence of a specific idea, or simply sound better, than their foreign counterparts. Translation is so tricky because (1) there really are 'better' ways to express things in one language or another, and (2) this depends greatly on one's taste.
(More later on Spanglish as high art; for now, check out a typical Spanglish dictionary, from a Spanish perspective. Also here is an unfortunate example of what happens when literary nerds take the Spanglish phenomenon too far.)
Those from romance-language countries can experience this easily by going from, say, Portugal to Italy or France to Romania; but for us Anglophones it’s harder. We’ve got a foot inside the Germanic and another in the Romance/Latin, yet stand on our own, and mostly can’t understand a lick of that other crap. And but why would we need to, anyway? We benefit from the historical moment of English’s ascendance as default world language. The chance doesn’t come too often, people. Better to spend your time learning some other universal language, like carpentry. Or calculus.
But the question remains: from a practical standpoint, is it really necessary for the ABCs (o sea, Americans/Australians/British/Canadians) to learn other languages these days? Who are we kidding? Ok, certainly ONE (1) other language (say, Spanish) would be a good idea, but two (2) or three (3!!!)—which tends to be 'normal' for Europeans—that’s just crazy! In a world where we are busier than ever but also coming together at a faster rate (through globalization & IT, western cultural imperialism, and of course the rein of our native tongue, etc), shouldn’t we just take everyone else’s English for granted and dedicate our busy lives toward other useful goals? It really is a matter of time and priorities, right? Won’t the whole world be better off if everyone spoke a single language (say, English—again, from a purely practical perspective), despite the highly political implications of asking us to do so? But hasn't the question already been asked, anyway, and aren't we already headed toward an English-speaking global society?