Being a native speaker of English has its pluses and its minuses. On the plus side, there are plenty of people abroad who speak it. The minus, of course, is that one’s foreign language instruction tends to be minimal, particularly if one is, like me, an American. I can read academic books in French (my vocabulary isn’t such that I can read, say, novels) and can both read and speak a little German; my Italian is limited to what P has described as both sides of a hole: I can ask for directions, order coffee, and so on, and I can say things like “I have lost my dear husband” and “die, Caesar, die!” (thank you, opera!) but there’s a sort of problematically large space in the middle.

But limited language capabilities can be an asset with respect to music. This is going to sound weird, and it’s completely idiosyncratic, but bear with me. I understand enough German, for example, to follow the dialogue in The Magic Flute, and enough Italian that the words in most Italian operas will cue me as to where we are in the story, if I’m familiar with it. At the same time, I understand neither of these languages well enough that I hear them the way I hear English, where the comprehension is (duh) automatic. Which means that I can switch them (mostly) off. I find that I like this. When I listen to songs or opera in English I find I listen to them differently than I do if the words are in Italian/French/German/etc. I pay more attention to the text, which might be good in some cases, but the text can be intrusive, particularly if the text is a little bit inane. And with a great deal of opera, the text is fairly inane. (I mean, have you actually read the librettos to, say, your average Donizetti opera? It’s better not to, really.)

I think I lose out when it comes to Lieder, for example, where the details of the text are more important. (Although if I listen to those enough, I end up memorizing most of the German, and can remember what most of the words mean, most of the time. After listening about a million times to a bootleg recording of a Bostridge/Quasthoff/Roschmann Schubert recital, for example, I have picked up a number of interesting vocabulary items, including words/phrases for ‘poaching’, ‘mistress’ ‘orange trees’ and ‘what do I care?’ And they say art has no practical value!)

One thought on “Language

  1. When I first moved to Canada I spoke some French but my vocabulary was limited largely to what one picks up from school and a short affair with a Parisienne with an interesting comic book collection. I was keen to understand more about my new home so I took to reading Quebecois novels and watching hockey. Being in Ottawa in the pre-Sens days one could get the Habs games but usually with French commentary. Thus I learned the technical vocabulary of hockey, forestry and la drave (all Quebecois novels are about forestry or la drave) in French without really knowing the English equivalents. I subsequently picked up all the requisite French for rugby from watching games on the European sports channel when the English one wasn’t being helpful. This has even come in useful occasionally when I’ve been refereeing. Language learning is very odd.


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