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This report is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.

Parlez-Vous Anything? William Germano

The old joke gets it just about right. Someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks one language is American. The British at least have been able to poke fun at their own inability to learn foreign languages. When required to show off her Italian, E.F. Benson's Lucia trills the words bella lingua, the only words she knows. Dickens's Mrs Plornish triumphs, at least in her own mind, by offering fractured English when a foreign tongue is required. But no one jokes about the Three Untruths of Foreign Language Study: You will learn to read it, you will learn to speak it, and you will learn to write it.

My wife comes from a family where a grandparent or two could say Schweig! die Kinder!, a warning that of course always came too late to prevent the kinder from knowing what was being said in the garten. I come from a family where a word or two of an Italian dialect might have been invoked on special occasions - mainly affectionate names for food or babies' bottoms. Our grandparents were first generation. This was all the native tongue they had kept alive. Like most immigrants' children, they knew that English had to overcome the native tongue as fast as possible. At least that's the way the story played in the 1950s.

When my parents were kids, the Pig Latin craze put a kind of second ...

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