Lessons from my son’s monolingualism
The first time my son left home he was only 10 years old. My wife’s sister, an antiques dealer who lives in Paris, wanted him to stay with her for the summer. Any fears were easily rationalized by the vision of his triumphant return—whereupon my extraordinary son, having been given this unique opportunity so early in life, would reveal the incredible things he had seen, his fantastic adventures, and above all, his newfound ability to speak rudimentary French.
The summer passed. There were occasional phone calls about trips to Mont-Saint-Michel, visits to chateaus in the south, solo travels on the metro, and early morning jaunts to buy croissants in a nearby market. I was impressed, delighted, proud. So it was with enormous expectation that I met his plane, lifted him into my arms, hugged him, and exclaimed, “Bienvenue, mon fils, comment va-t’il?”
He looked perplexed. I repeated my welcome, smiling and awaiting his response. “Oh, Dad,” he said. “Don’t be silly.”
I thought perhaps I had inadvertently threatened him. I laughed. “All right,” I said. “Just say anything in French.”
He shook his head. “Don’t know how,” he said.
“But you bought croissants in the market. You went around Paris alone on the metro.”
“They talked to me in English.” My son was nonchalant, as only a 10-year-old can be. “Why should I learn that other stuff?”
His attitude was anathema to me. Born in a small Midwestern town and acutely aware that I lacked a certain sophistication because I had never learned to speak another language fluently, I was determined that my children would grow up multilingual. But I was also a good liberal father and so I hid my disappointment in the hope that he would someday see the error of his ways.
Soon enough my son was entering high school—a magnet school where I was assured he would receive a good education. By and large, he did. Except when it came to foreign languages. He chose German, but he refused to speak German. His excellent transcript was inevitably diminished by those terrible German grades, but he was intractable.
He eventually went off to college in New York, to an extremely liberal school he chose partly because he would not be required to learn a foreign language. He made friends with two Bulgarian students and lived, for a while, with their families in Sofia and Plovdiv. He was even interviewed on Bulgarian national radio—in English. He moved to a loft in a Polish section of Brooklyn and enjoyed hanging out in an old Polish restaurant where he would drink with the patrons and joke with them—in English.
He graduated from the philosophy department and decided to continue in graduate school. He became an editor of the school’s philosophy journal. His accomplishments were considerable, and I should have been an extremely proud father, but I simply could not forgive his total reliance on his native tongue. I must say that I found his attitude downright Republican.
Then, a few months ago, I received a nervous call late at night. “Dad?”
“I want to spend the summer taking an intensive language course, eight hours a day, every day, for 10 weeks.”
My heart soared. I believe there were actually tears in my eyes. “That’s wonderful. What language?”
“I want it to be a surprise,” he said.
I was too happy to argue. “All right,” I said. “But let me know how things are going.”
We talked on and off over the next 10 weeks. He told me the language course was the hardest thing he had ever done. He was getting an A. He wasn’t getting an A. He returned to his loft after class and studied until he fell asleep on his bed. He didn’t go to a club all summer. He was convinced he wasn’t going to get an A on the final. And then, a few weeks ago, that unbelievable call: He got an A in the course!
My fondest dreams had come true. I was so proud of him, and I told him how I felt. I wished he was with me. I wanted to hug him again. “So,” I said, “now you can tell me what language you learned.”
He laughed. “Guess.”
I rapidly went through Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese—all of which were incorrect. Finally I told him to just start speaking the language and I’d figure it out.
“Ωςεφαθ, οι δ’αρα παντες ακην εγενοντο σιωπη, κηληφμω δ’εσχοντο κατα μεγαρα σκιοεντα. Well, that’s just Homer,” he said. “But yesterday, at lunch, I was reding Plato in the original for the first time and . . .”
I gently put the phone down. I stared into the darkness and confronted the unintended results of my hubris: My son finally spoke another language, but one that had not been heard in common speech on this earth for more than 2,000 years. In my despair, I rent my garments, tore out my remaining hair, raised my fist toward those Olympian gods and cursed them for their treachery. So this was their revenge against the father who had tried to manipulate his son for so many years?
Getting out of bed, I went to the bookshelf and took down my own translated edition of The Republic and read: “Let early education be a form of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the natural bent.” I was, for the moment, comforted. Perhaps I had not lost the battle after all.