Sweets for the Swede

This post originally appeared February 16, 2018, on the Chile Today Hot Tamale! website. (www.chiletodayhottamale.net)

I want to learn Swedish. Or Danish. Or both. I also want to prove the Riemann Hypothesis. I figure the probability of doing any one of the three is zero.

We can set aside the Riemann Hypothesis and focus on language. (It isn’t that I wouldn’t be happy proving the hypothesis, it is just that I am totally unfit to tackle the problem.)

The late Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician of Polish origin, once claimed that his facility with English was made possible by the fact that he had learned some language (in his case, Polish), prior to the age of seven. My conclusion from this observation, which may or may not be correct, is that our ability to learn a second language diminishes rapidly after the age of seven.

The small high school I attended offered only one foreign language, French. I started to learn the language a month or so before my 15th birthday. According to my theory, that was eight years too late. As for my desire to learn Swedish or Danish, I figure I am now 58 years too late. The attempt to learn either language would be a Sisyphean task.

When I settled on an undergraduate major of chemistry, I was tempted to learn German. The great chemists of the 19th century were German, and German-speaking chemists and physicists were well represented in the world of theoretical chemistry in the early 20th century. German was the foreign language recommended by the chemistry department at Wake Forest University. Given my troubles with French, I avoided the German temptation until my sophomore year. It happened that a young lady in whom I was interested was taking German, so I joined her in the class. It didn’t take long before I decided that she just wasn’t worth the effort. It was a good call, as I can no longer even remember her name.

Graduate school presented an interesting problem. I needed to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language in order to receive the PhD degree. I doubt that the language requirement is still in place. (Most scholarly publications are now in English. I contributed a research paper to a Swedish journal in the 1980s, in English, and I was not the Lone Ranger. It seemed to me that only about half of the papers were in Swedish. The rest were in English.) Nevertheless, in the 1970s, the archaic foreign language requirement was still in place. I had my choice of taking a couple of semesters of French, or of taking one of those 800-point standardized language exams, with a minimum of 500 points required to pass. I chose the latter, and managed to get by with 20 points to spare. A colleague of mine, who was on his last try, made it with a score of 503.

A few years ago, I purchased the book and tapes for the Foreign Service Institute’s French program. With all the good intentions in the world, I periodically pop a tape in my old tape player and take a shot at “brushing up on my French.” I did so prior to one of my trips to France, only to be laughed at by a dear friend there who considered my command of the language, as well as my accent, to be terrible. C’est dommage.

I must note that the seven-years-of-age rule does admit a few exceptions. Kathy lived for a year in Colombia when she was 10, and she has to this day a decent command of Spanish. My eldest daughter likewise has a decent command of Spanish, and I am pretty sure she didn’t start learning the language before the age of seven. My second daughter seemed to get along in Chinese quite well when we visited her in Taipei, and she didn’t begin Chinese lessons until she attended dear old Wake Forest. So there are exceptions, which just prove the rule, as far as I am concerned.

Recently I have been watching some very good television shows, some in Swedish, some in Danish, and I would really, really like to do away with the subtitles. I would also like to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, but as they say in Italian, “It ain’t a gonna happen!”