Apologies for the misleading title, I am not exactly bilingual. But throughout my life I’ve had a decent amount of exposure to other languages. I grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, where I was exposed to Spanish and Navajo (among other Native American languages), and I took 5 semesters of Spanish in high school and college. In college, I had multiple friends who spoke different languages, from Portuguese to Hindi to Yiddish. Perhaps my favorite language exposure to talk about is Lithuanian. My family hails (three generations back) from the small Baltic nation, and in 2009, I decided to go visit. I found a school to do a study abroad program, and spent the weeks leading up to the trip trying to learn Lithuanian. I tried a couple of different programs, but by far the most successful was a podcast called Lithuanian Out Loud. Unfortunately, I didn’t maintain my practice on a regular basis, and I’ve forgotten much of what I learned. My running joke to people is that I know enough Lithuanian to say “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu lietuviškai,” or “I’m sorry, but I only understand a little bit of Lithuanian.”
I love Lithuania. And my deep connection to my cultural heritage is one way I bond with my students. I find that our immigrant and migrant students are often more interested in the world around them than their American peers. When I tell them I have relatives in Australia or a friend studying in China, they get excited and want to know more about it. So when I tell them about Lithuania, they ask questions. Where is it? What does it look like? How many people live there? For most of my students, this has definitely colored my personality.
But back to the fact that this title is misleading. I am not bilingual. I have limited conversational Spanish–about as good as my students’ English. And though I took Spanish in high school and college, most of my Spanish has developed out of a necessity to communicate with Spanish-speaking students who are new to the country and had little exposure to English at home. I recently joked to one of my students that I am good at talking about math in Spanish, but not much else. Except I was speaking in Spanish, so it probably sounded more like, “In Spanish… I know all the math words… but no others.” This is another part of my personality that my students have become familiar with. They know that I know some Spanish–enough that I can usually explain math–but for the most part, I will struggle to understand what they say. They sometimes try to use this to their advantage.
This is why, last year, when two of my students were having a conversation in Spanish at the beginning of class, one of them looked up at me and asked me a question in Spanish. He knew that I wouldn’t understand him, and he thought it would be funny to ask me a question that I couldn’t understand. So, without missing a beat, I smoothly responded, “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu ispaniškai.” I am pretty sure my student gave me the face he was expecting to see from me.
“Miss Molly… what… what did you say? I don’t understand…”
This was, of course, met with raucous laughter from the other student in the conversation, who said, “that’s what you sound like to her!” And that was the end of the purposeful miscommunication.