Polyglot lane-changing in Luxembourg
I was taking our son and two of his friends to a birthday party the other day.
As we motored down the highway here in Luxembourg, the boys yakked away about the kinds of things nine year old boys like to yak about, their chitchat moving back and forth between languages as if they were changing stations on a radio dial.
Sometimes they switched within one subject; sometimes within one sentence. Sometimes it seemed they switched mid-word.
OK, I exaggerate on that last point, but it is still amazing how effortlessly kids here juggle languages. When asked how they do it, they shrug, “I don’t know.” It’s second nature. They don’t give it much thought.
Nor do adults, though they take this polyglot lane changing to a whole different level. While for many citizens of the world bilingualism is impressive, it’s all but a given here. Three’s average. Four or five merits little more than a subtle nod of appreciation. It’s not until one starts counting on two hands that others really take notice.
It’s easy to take it all for granted. But stop and give pause. Where else outside the Grand Duchy can one pretty much choose the language he/she wants to speak in? Where else can one experience such a concentrated modern day Babel aside from perhaps airports?
Coming from where I do, people don’t give much care to non-English speakers. In fact, even though the US doesn’t have an official vernacular, there are those who fight to prevent any other language from standing side by side with English. We gasp in horror at signs in Spanish and writhe when having to hear a phone message offer Spanish as an option. A lingual Armageddon, some might proclaim.
It’s a pity, really. I remember listening in awe as my mom talked on the telephone (the wall-mounted version with a curled chord) to her mother in Italy. I was dazzled by the strange sounds and intonations even though I was unable to understand what was being said.
That same sense of wonder washed over me while listening to the boys weave their way through three languages. As we made our way down the highway, I -- the relatively monolingual monolith -- found some solace in the fact that I could do one thing the boys couldn’t do… drive. Momentarily redeemed, I sped along in a straight line.