My Life as a Serial Linguist

by Eric Beebe


This week, I’ll leave for Spain to visit my sister on her semester abroad. She took French in high school, and I took Spanish, so the months leading up to her trip were filled with half-hearted agreements to compete with each other on Duolingo for supremacy. She upheld at least her end of the bargain, but I continued a shaky track record in the study of foreign languages.

I studied Spanish in high school to look well-rounded on college apps, the same reason I tolerated three seasons of football and volunteered to direct traffic at a Republican Party cookout my grandpa helped organize. German had been my real interest, but it wasn’t offered. So I undertook Spanish with all the effort a disinterested teen pressured to look good on paper could muster, taking three years before I would’ve had to sign up for AP and actually attempt fluency. I was content with my limited use of it in things like making Xbox gamertags (xOSO FUERTEx) and masking anxieties in social interactions (because sometimes hola is just so much easier than hello).

My lack of dedication felt vindicated when the first country I traveled to out of high school was Poland. I didn’t bother to learn much Polish either before my month there. What I did learn, thanks to a handbook my uncle bought me, was how to say “kiss me” (pocałuj mnie) and “do you want a massage?” (czy zrobić ci masaż), my uses of which were limited to shouting in my host-brother’s friend’s back yard after taking twelve–plus shots at his house party, before I started puking on a tree. I did pick up the basic yes, no, excuse me, etc. and familiarized myself with their phonetics, but training myself to recognize “dz” as “j,” “j” as “y,” “y” as “i,” “i” as “ee,” and so on was far from communication. I entertained thoughts of learning Polish and practicing online with my new friends to catch up after I left, until I actually left and felt no more motivated than I had for Spanish.

The problem I saw was I had no inherent link to either language. German had interested me because of my German/Nordic lineage, but I’d heard of no Polish relatives, and the only Spaniard I knew of in our family tree was Valeriano “The Butcher” Weyler, who’d earned his moniker using concentration camps to try quelling Cuban rebels in the 1890s—not exactly the kind of relation I wanted to embody. So come sophomore year of college, I asked my parents for books on Old Norse for Christmas, and the following summer I sought out a world expert on the subject for advice on teaching myself. I spent a day and a half with my sources and copious snacks—long enough to learn novelties like how the transition from þing ("meeting") to “thing” gave the phrase “I have a… thing then” meaning and cognates like land (“land”) and bok (“book”). Then I burnt out, around the same time I must have run out of Girl-Scout Cookies, and barely touched the material again.

But that fall, I felt my first great pull to Spanish when my lit seminar spent a week covering Pablo Neruda, with special attention to faults in translations of his work. A self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, I obsessed over his Cien sonetos de amor. My professor invited someone to try reading one poem in the original Spanish, so—buzzed on pre-class whisky and thinking Spanish classes from four years back would help—I volunteered. He stopped me, rightly, after the first line to save me from further embarrassment. I hated myself for losing so much of my Spanish I couldn’t even stumble through, and I told myself then I’d relearn Spanish. But Austria got in the way.

I spent the following spring and summer priming myself on German for a semester in Vienna. Once I got there, I was proud to be counted among the advanced students in my German class—for beginners. Even so, by the end of the term I felt steamrolled by the curriculum. When first ordered, “Ich möchte ein Weihenstephaner, bitte,” at what would become my favorite bar, I felt relief when the bartender shouted back in a thick Liverpool accent, “I don’t speak fucking German! Say it in English.” Still, I pestered the locals I befriended with drunken attempts at stringing sentences together, and, by the morning of my flight home, I was thankful to have picked up enough that my Turkish taxi driver and I could find a common-ish tongue.

After college, I briefly entered a daily regimen of German, Spanish, and Polish practice back-to-back but found only slightly more success with that than I had with Old Norse. This has remained true to the present. So has my desire to return to each, flawed as it may be. As my visit to Spain nears, I wonder what effect it will have on me. I can hope to arrive and be caught up in the hum of Spanish life, coaxed all the more by whatever fragments of its language still shelter in my brain. I can hope they’ll come out to breathe, even if it takes a little booze or they’re met with insistence that the locals’ English is better. I can hope I’ll choose to learn all over again.

Eric Beebe is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently works as a substitute teacher for grades K–12 in New Hampshire.