Old Habits Die Hard, Especially in One’s Sleep
Doing some “Googling” on languages and dreams, I was amazed at how many entries there are on the subject, “What language do you dream in?” There’s even a book at Amazon.com titled — you guessed it — “What language do you dream in?”
So, given the interest and since it has been more than three years since I wrote about it here, let me try it again, with a different title and a few minor updates.
One of the most difficult-to-answer questions bi-lingual people are asked is, “What language do you dream in?”
Even if you speak only one language, think about it: Do you remember words from your dreams?
For me, however, the cat is out of the bag. I must dream in Spanish.
You see, although it doesn’t happen that often any more, there are still times when my English-born wife gently, and sometimes not so gently, awakens me in the middle of the night to tell me that I have been talking in my sleep again — in Spanish.
Invariably, she will ask me in the morning with a tinge of suspicion what I was talking about. Invariably, my answer is that I don’t remember, which most of the time is the truth. Needless to say, at my age of nearly 72 she need not worry — not even about my dreams.
Dreaming in Spanish is sadly one of the last vestiges that Spanish was once my native language, my mother tongue. Just as sad, the last time I was truly fluent in any language was 62 years ago, when I was 10 years.
That is not to say that I am not proficient in English or in other languages. It is just a shame that I am so rusty at my native language, that I am no longer fluent in my first acquired language, Dutch. If one listens closely and reads carefully, one will detect a slight accent in my spoken English and may notice some unusual constructs in my writing.
Some will say that this is a small price to pay for speaking several languages. Perhaps. But, when it comes to languages I feel like an orphan in language land. Let me explain.
When I was small, living in my native Ecuador, I spoke Spanish with the fluency that any 10-year-old has in his or her mother tongue. Spanish was the only language I spoke, with the exception of a couple of English and Dutch words I picked up from my Dutch father.
These were words and phrases the meaning of which I did not necessarily know at the time, such as “such is life,” which my father mused when he got into a philosophical mood, or the Dutch verdomme! (damn!) during other less reflective occasions.
It was at that young age that we moved to Curaçao, in the Netherlands Antilles. Living in a Dutch “company town” and attending a Dutch school, my sisters and I became fluent in Dutch in less than a year.
After four years of “total immersion” in Dutch, and after picking up some “choice” words in the local Papiamento (a delightful language derived mainly from Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and West African languages), our family moved to the Netherlands, where I finished high school.
By then, my acquired Dutch was already better than my native Spanish. Since Dutch is hardly a universal language, Dutch high school students received two to four years of solid education in English, German, French and/or Spanish. Having three languages under my belt and with knowledge of other languages, the reader may ask, what is the problem? Well, I am not finished yet.
After graduating from high school, I immigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Air Force a year later. The military must have been desperate for new recruits, because my English at the time was, at best, “broken.” Amazingly, and much to my delight, my first assignment was as an “airborne radio operator,” flying radar patrol missions over the North Atlantic. One of my most important tasks was to communicate, by “voice radio,” essential military and flight information to ground-based units. Since the ground radio operators could barely understand my thick accent, I soon became the best Morse code radio operator in the U.S. Air Force!
Because I virtually stopped learning Spanish at the youthful age of 10, my Spanish vocabulary does not include adult, “X-rated” lingo. This made for some very awkward situations during my early years in the military, when I gravitated to groups of Latino troops and could not understand half of their very “folkloric” conversations.
Today, I find that this particular folkloric gap in my Spanish is no longer such a big problem, but I am still paying for having lost command of the Spanish language. For example, when I am at a loss for a word in Spanish, I often resort to “Hispanicizing” an English word. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
During a recent trip to Ecuador, I had to laugh aloud when I read in a local newspaper that an American Airlines flight had been forced to make an emergency landing in Miami with 25 Ecuadoreans on board “con intoxicación.”
When I showed my relatives the headlines and explained that I visualized the pilot requesting an emergency landing because he had 25 drunken Ecuadoreans on board, it was their turn to laugh.
They explained to me that the Ecuadoreans were not intoxicated, but rather suffered from food poisoning. When I then told them that I was “muy embarazado” about my poor Spanish, they did not know whether to laugh or to cry at the news that I was very pregnant, especially since they had always considered me to be quite an upright, male member of the family.
Nevertheless, my orphan days in language land may be coming to an end. One of the most promising signs that English may be finally becoming my new “mother tongue” is that I now think that I think in English — except for when I “lose it” in stress situations and blurt out to my grandson “¡Cuidado!” (Watch out!), or my PG-13 “¡Caramba!” and everyone stares at me.
Now, if I could just quit speaking Spanish in my sleep …
Happy New Year and be careful of what you dream — and in what language.
Graphic via shutterstock.com