My Pen Is Curious, Yellow

English is a good language. But it’s not good enough.

That’s the message you get from our school system, anyway; you can’t get a college degree without yammering on for at least a year in some heathen tongue. Why bother? English is the way coolest language ever. It has one advantage that no other language can offer; you already speak it. Why would you need anything else?

Besides, the priorities are all messed up in language courses. Because you’re in a classroom, the lessons always focus heavily on objects that exist in classrooms. And then they forget to teach you anything else. After seven years of high school Spanish training, I can now say “the pen is yellow”, but that’s about it. If I were to go abroad to Spain, I would merrily tell everyone how yellow my pen is, impressing the ladies with my pen’s fantastic color, telling the waiters laughingly that their pen is yellow (even if it’s not), explaining carefully to passing vendors the hue and grandeur that is my pen. However, were I abroad in Spain, I would also starve to death in short order because I have no idea what the words for “food”, “shelter”, or “money” are. I’d go to my grave with a pen in my fist.

But somebody must think it’s important that you know how to say, “The pen is yellow” in one language or another. The difference between a B.A. and a B.S. is that you can either forget two whole years of language training or you can forget one year of language training. Either way, though, you’re gonna have to suffer your way through a language course.

Foreign languages can be broken down into five basic categories: LanguagesThat Everyone Takes Because They’re Easy (spanish and french), Languages Which Make You Hawk Up Phlegm Balls (german and yiddish), Languages You Already Speak And Are Taking The Class Only To Get A Really Cheap “A” (italian, invariably), and Languages Spoken By Heathen Slanteyes That Are Taking Over Our Culture And Economy Are Eventually Going To Own You Body And Soul, So You’d Better Damn Well Learn Their Language Right Now, Buster (japanese, and you’d better say “Domo Arigato” when you say that, pal).

For your benefit and your benefit alone (you lucky dog, you), I have provided you with a list of what’s it like to take each language. Read on, Macduff. Consider it Uncle Willy’s gift to you whelplike freshmen.

Spanish. The problem with college-level spanish is that they don’t talk to you right. When you do a class exercise everyone speaks very slowly and very clearly, like those tired old Mexicans hunched under giant hats in bad Westerns who take siestas all day and act vaguely confused when anybody wakes them up. “What…. senor? You want to know… where Black Bart ees? Ah yes, Buenos Nachos, he ees in the corral… can I go back to sleep now?”

The problem is that invariably you wind up talking to New York Hispanics, who have apparently never heard the word “slow” in either English or Spanish. Talking to a New York Hispanic is like listening to a machine gun go off. “Quantele

NOcheQUIERolosPApasFRITasYsuMAmaesuntorTUga…. Senor.” Your only hope is to find a Spanish Valium addict who doesn’t slur his words too badly; otherwise you’re lost.

French. A well-known fact of the French language is that people who take it become almost as annoyingly smug as actual French people. French is an easy language, it sounds kind of cool, and as a result fellow French students will often trip through the halls giddily, having snide conversations in their newly-learned language about other, less with-it people. Stuff a frog down their throat and shut ’em up if you see ’em doing this, because it annoys me.

But a French accent is surprisingly easy to pick up. Here’s how; pretend you’ve just been to the dentist. You now have a jawful of Novocaine. You cannot close your lips properly and you spray a fine mist of spit over everything in sight with each syllable. Now talk: “Ah, wee zirr, wee haffFFF ah good zeleczzzshun uvvv winnnez.”

Bingo. You’re French. Now go stomp on a grape or something.

Italian. If French is the Language of Love, then Italian is the Language of Swearing. Learn Italian if you get angry a lot. Many operas have been written this way.

Russian. It comes as no great surprise that the Russians’ economy failed to those who took Russian; they can’t even get their alphabet right, for Chrissakes. Russia’s alphabet was apparently created by a deranged dyslexic Scrabble tile designer, because every letter is replaced with a much harder one. For example, “BOM” is pronounced “VOTE” and means “MAN”; it’s like learning three languages at once, and I say to hell with it. There’s no sense in going to just efforts to learn a language when all you’re going to do is order vodka with it.

Japanese. Another difficult language to learn, Japanese is compounded by the fact that there’s two kinds of written languages (picture characters and regular alphabet languages) and has an oral language that has approximately five million zillion words to learn, and all of them sound exactly alike. You go into a restaurant with your pitifully Occidental pronunciation to try to ask for a beer and the waitress brings you a condominium with bumps on it.

Japanese is an impossible language, yes, but there’s a secret; the Japanese don’t actually speak it. They sit around all day talking complete nonsense (“Yoko hono ho ha? Manu gu gana horishiba, you stupid Occidental, you.”) and scrawling random squiggles on a piece of paper just so we’ll feel stupid when we can’t understand a word they’re saying. When none of us damn Wide-Eyes are around they slam the door, turn on some good ol’ American football, and air-guitar to Jimi Hendrix as they laugh themselves silly over the way they’ve all fooled us for another day. Those Japanese sure hate foreigners.

German. Now this is a happening language, and one that I am taking right now. It sounds cool and practically no one this side of the Atlantic speaks it, so you can feel really international. The only problem is that, although the lessons are kind of nice, the whole class lacks a sense of urgency; I’d like to spice it up a bit. If I taught German, every day I’d come crashing into the class in a big Nazi uniform carrying a loaded rifle, crying, “Juden! Wo sind Sie Juden?” The class would be quizzed on readings from Mein Kampf; anyone who answers wrong will find themselves on a one-way trip to Germany via boxcar. The final examination would be a truly killer test; you’d better hope your vocabulary includes the word “showers”, chum, because otherwise you’re in for a real surprise.

Anyway, that’s what the languages are like. You’ll have to take one, so pick and choose. And in the spirit of multiculturalism, I wrote this column with a yellow pen.

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