May 13, 2010 | Spanish

Extreme Polylingualism; Also, Williamsburg

I talk to impressively multilingual people and visit a Brooklyn melting pot.

I studied Spanish on subways today. I am using a new book that I am pretty happy with: Advanced Spanish Grammar by Rogelio Alonso Vallecillos. In it he goes into detail about some subtler language issues that have been confusing me. I am always happy when my confusion is reduced. 

Waiting for the Subway

On the #3 train a man who was probably in his eighties saw the book and told me, “You can’t live in New York without speaking Spanish.” I laughed. I pointed out that indeed you could, but that it was certainly helpful to know it.

We had a brief exchange in Spanish, and I asked where he was from. He surprised me by saying Italy. He speaks something like five languages. So impressive. I told him in Italian that I’d been studying Italian, too. He asked why, and I had just begun telling him about this project when we reached his stop, Times Square.

With great gallantry he waved goodbye. He said, “I could talk to you for a whole week.”

This was my second consecutive day of conversation with an elderly polylingual person. The day before, at Café Margot, a 90-something-year-old woman had pointed at my dictionary and inquired about my activities.

It turned out she came here from Germany about 70 years ago. Besides German and English, she speaks French and is competent in Spanish. She is strikingly attractive and elegant. We concluded our conversation in French, which, as usual, did not go well for me.

Both of these language literates were European. In language learning, it helps to be sandwiched amid a whole lot of countries with different national languages.

It also helps to actually be taught this stuff in school.

I was in DUMBO this morning for the opening session of the New York Photo Festival. (For non-New Yorkers, DUMBO refers to a Brooklyn neighborhood and serves as a more economical alternative to Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.)

After the session ended, I took a side trip to the remarkable Williamsburg, where Spanish, Hebrew, and Polish—for starters—can be found.

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Building Art

Beer and Hats for Sale

Under the Elevated Subway Tracks

Meat Truck!

La Borinqueña Grocery

Comments (1)

Jill • Posted on Sat, May 15, 2010 - 11:24 am EST

Hi Ellen,

I just love that you’re excursion happy - always on the go.

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