THE BLOG
11/17/2010 04:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Language Do You Dream In?

It doesn't happen that often any more, but 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 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 70 she need not worry -- not even about my dreams.

Dreaming in Spanish is sadly one of the last remaining traces of evidence that Spanish was once my native language, my mother tongue. Just as sad, the last time I was truly fluent in any language was 60 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 that I am shamefully rusty at my native language; that I am no longer fluent in my first acquired language, Dutch; if you listen closely and read carefully, you will detect a slight accent in my spoken English or may notice some unusual constructs in my writings.

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 living in language land. Let me explain.

When I was 10, 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!) on other less philosophical 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 sister 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 during my education there received two to four years of solid education in English, German, French and/or Spanish. Having two languages under my belt and with four years of studying other languages, the reader will 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 my last 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 just could quit speaking Spanish in my sleep...

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