What do you call a person who speaks two languages? (Answer: Bilingual.)
What do you call a person who speaks three languages? (Answer: Trilingual.)
What do you call a person who speaks one language? (Answer: American.)

It’s an old joke, but there’s probably as much truth as jest in it.

I was thinking about that when I was in Uganda, where I am always amazed at the number of different languages that are spoken in a relatively small country, and the number of people who can shift gears seamlessly between one language and another.

Although I know a few words and phrases in a handful of different languages, I don’t consider myself fluent in any of them. And I admit freely that trying to learn other languages sometimes gets me into trouble.

My friend Tabitha loves to tell the story about how, a few years ago, she and some other friends decided it was time I had a Ugandan name. They discussed the personalities of different tribes and clans, and finally decided I should have as my name the Luganda word for water. It’s a simple, two-syllable word, and I repeated it to myself several times before announcing, loudly and proudly – and I’ll spell it phonetically here  – “My name is mah ZEE.

Everyone immediately erupted in laughter. That’s when I discovered what a big difference there can be in a very slight difference in pronunciation. In this case, putting the accent on the second syllable rather than the first meant that instead of saying “My name is Water,” I said, “My name is Poop.”

I respectfully requested a new name, one that couldn’t be so easily mispronounced. So I am now of the Royal Clan, and my name, Omumbejja, means “Princess.” Although I still go by “Betty” most of the time.

Counting the Polish I learned from my grandma when I was small, the French I learned in high school, the Spanish I learned watching Sesame Street when my kids were little, plus a few other snippets here and there, I can say a few basic words and phrases – like “Please,” “Thank you,” “Good morning,” and “Goodnight” – in about half a dozen languages. And “My name is Poop” in Luganda. That’s not much, but it puts me slightly ahead of the stereotypical American of the bilingual/trilingual joke.

By the way, I could add another line to that joke by asking, “What do you call a person who speaks 14 languages?” The answer is “Paul,” who is someone I met in the Refugee Settlement in Uganda. People from 13 different countries live there, and I’m guessing Paul can converse with virtually all of them. There’s probably only a handful of people – not just in the Settlement, but in the world – who could say that.

I can’t even imagine how much work, study, and practice it would take to become fluent in so many languages, but I have the utmost respect and admiration for people who do. People like Paul, and the woman I saw on a television show not long ago. She was an international businesswoman – a fictional one, granted, but still – and when someone asked her how many languages she spoke, she simply smiled and said, “All of them.”

June 15, 2018
©Betty Liedtke, 2018

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