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On bilingualism and soccer

by Katia Kapovich on June 16th, 2010

My most useful information about bilingualism was drawn not from “second language acquisition” literature but from a famous Soviet spy mini-series about the adventures of the double-agent Isaev working undercover as SS officer Shtirlits in the upper echelons of the Nazi high command during the last months of WWII. Here is the scene that I have in mind. Shtirlits comes to see his Russian agent Katia, my namesake, who is also located in Berlin. It’s a very poignant moment, because she is very pregnant. “You probably understand that you’ll be delivering at home,” Shtirlits says. “Why?” she asks, her German being as good as her Russian, she cannot think of any reasons why she couldn’t go to the hospital. “My German is all right. I speak without any accent.”

“Your German is indeed all right! But when in pain you’ll be screaming in Russian, dear child!” he says with a sigh.

That’s it. And that is exactly what all of us, bilingual people, need to know. The second language as well adopted won’t be the one we’ll be screaming in when in pain.

Here’s the proof. On the third day of the Rotterdam Poetry Festival, I decided to go to see Amsterdam in the morning. I’m not a big traveler, to say the least. On the day I was a bit nervous. Having a map and two sandwiches in my bag pack I left the hotel lobby braving my way to the Central Station. It took me a while till I found it though Lucy Pijnenburg, a festival coordinator, had spent minimum an hour giving me very detailed directions. Cunningly hidden between fences, cranes, working excavators, Central Station looked extremely agitated which added to my mood. As I walked toward it, people in bright orange t-shirts, orange hats, orange wigs, orange everything poured from all entances. On their chests were orange garlands and they were blowing orange horns. “Who are these folks and why are they dressed like that?” I asked myself, as I was beating my way through the crowds. Then a strange thing happened which increased my panic. I asked a couple of passers-by to show me where a ticket booth was and found out that nobody knew what I was talking about. Orange people looked at me and shrugged shoulders. Just yesterday everything was fine. Precious time was lost, my train left, I was still there wondering what might have possibly happened during one night that made Dutch people forget English. Somebody put a garland on my neck and placed a triangular hat on my head. In my new triangular hat I went out for a smoke and boom . . . it all became clear to me. All the time I was there I was speaking Russian, no wonder nobody knew what I wanted. “So what’s going on with all these orange costumes,” I asked a woman. She groped for words: “Denmark . . . Holland . . . A soccer game!”

Here is what I think about it now. It’s not only excruciating pain but isolation too that can burn an otherwise reliable second thesaurus that we keep in our brain, leaving in its spot an orange smoke. After I underwent a ten minute loss of bilingualism I thought: “It’s great that Rotterdam Poetry Festival brings together poets from all over the world and make them talk to each other. Not always but sometimes poetry is a soccer game of its kind, and as any game it needs other players.” Anyway, I didn’t go to Amsterdam. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good day for a trip.

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