In which I do not seriously ask that question, thank God
Language is weird.
My relationship to language learning has always been marked both by eagerness and a measure of trepidation, an uncertainty born of having to consciously try. I grew up in a monolingual household—it’s been at least two generations since either side of my family was truly bilingual—and thus have attained varying levels of proficiency in other languages through concentrated study, largely in an academic context. Mingling in Berlin’s international community, I am often presumed to be Italian, as in hailing direct from Italy rather than via two generations of assimilation statunitense. I am confronted by identity dysphoria every time I speak that language: although I consider myself fluent, I cannot claim to be the native speaker my name might suggest, and even a moment’s hesitation in composing a thought or sentence aloud reminds me that I acquired Italian over nearly a decade of coursework. (Before that, at the still-relatively-old age of eleven, I studied Mandarin, of which I’ve retained a few things that have carried me further than you might guess.) So as I continue my study of languages I know and would like to know, there is a constant current of doubt just below the surface, doubt in my own ability to master the mechanics of whatever it is I am speaking or writing or reading or understanding.
Now, I do love the thrill of the chase, and I do have some natural intuition for authentic pronunciation. This, then, is the devil’s pact I’ve made: a certain facility for picking up the tics and tricks that make a language what it is, paid for with a certain lack of self-assurance which comes and goes in waves. Hey, if I can build wonderful, unique, improbable, fruitful friendships with people all over the world, I can handle a little discomfort.
Besides, it yields a whole lot to think about, and not only because my current place of residence is requiring major linguistic adjustments. One advantage to Italian—besides its obvious bellezza—is the door it unlocks to its sister languages, whose differences are often just subtle enough to trip you up. I get an extra satisfaction from a lesson in French or Portuguese because I feel I’ve leveled up, made progress toward cracking the code that separates one Latin derivative from another. Lately, in fact, I’ve spent at least as much time thinking about Romance languages as I have about the definitely non-Romance language I am tackling for more immediate purposes. But all the secondary languages I’ve immersed myself in have left me puzzling over one key phrase in my mother tongue:
How are you?
Let’s put aside what a difficult question this is to begin with and look at the phrase itself. How are you? It’s a knee-jerk component of meeting and greeting in the English-speaking world, something that leaves people’s mouths automatically, almost perfunctorily. Most tellingly, it is not the Come vai/va? of Italian or the Wie geht’s? of German. It is not How is it going?—we say that too, just not as readily. It is a personal question, and it carries a sense of permanence to it, unlike in these other languages which acknowledge temporality and transience more fully. It becomes a more difficult question than it need be because it connotes a state not of short-term faring, but of long-term being.
Of course, in Italian (for example) there is also Come stai?, which, transliterated, would be How do you stay? This is less common than How do you/does it go?, but even so it suggests the temporary. The verb stare deals in temporary matters, existing in one place or situation on the way to another. You may express feelings of irritation or weariness or stress—heck, contentedness or excitement or peace—and simultaneously communicate, with your choice of verb, that these are only of the moment. For states of permanent being, there is another verb–essere–which allows me to say Sono una ragazza (I am a girl) or Sono un’americana (gotcha, Deutschland!).
Meanwhile, when one says in English that they are tired, there is no linguistic distinction between this and the fact that they are thirty years old. In fact, this highlights the Romance family’s further accounting for all sorts of states: Italian uses avere (to have) to discuss age, as in Tu hai trent’anni. In English the one verb covers everything. For all non-native speakers know, those states of being we know to be temporary could last forever, because there is no verbal signal otherwise. To my knowledge, the only way of remaining thirty years old forever is to drink from the magical spring in Tuck Everlasting, and the only way of remaining tired forever is…to live in the year 2020. *laughs weakly*
Anyway, all this to say that the more intelligence I gather about the differences in language structures, the less I envy ESL students. I reckon almost no language provides a steeper uphill battle. Gallivanting about, proclaiming ourselves to be this or that…it’s inaccurate and probably a bit arrogant to act so declarative. We could stand to take a leaf out of the Romance and/or Germanic books. Come to think of it, the phrase we English-speakers should bring back is How do you do? Not only does it at least allude to a more temporary phase of life, it’s classy as hell.
Image: from “Broad City,” S02 E08