Jeanne, a Woman of Many Languages

Foreign languages. It’s something that many of us want to learn but few of us have the self discipline to master. Personally, I find it immensely frustrating and sad when my grandparents recount poems from their childhood and I can’t understand due the nuances of language outside of prose. Jeanne talked to me about similar experiences.

“I’m Jewish. I went to a public school but I also went to a Jewish school twice a week after public school to learn to write and speak Yiddish. I also tried to teach myself Russian so that I could speak and translate for my parents and my grandparents who didn’t speak much English. They came from Russia. My sisters and I were first generation Americans. My sisters were born in Chicago and I was born here in California. If I could go back and learn another language, I would learn spanish. I wasn’t too smart in high school and took French, but nobody uses French in California so much good it’s done for me.”

I remember this one time when my family and I stopped to eat at this small sushi place on our drive up to San Jose to visit my grandparents. As I was eating, I noticed the signatures beneath the paintings and realized that all the artists were Vietnamese. When the owner of the restaurant came out of the kitchen to serve another plate, I asked in Vietnamese if she was from Vietnam. Immediately, her face lit up with a smile and began talking with me as if I was her own grandchild. After fifteen minutes of conversation, she ran back into the kitchen to bring out three more dishes on the house, all of this simply because I spoke to her in her native tongue. I think the importance of foreign language is best stated by Nelson Mandela: If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

In addition to Jeanne’s knack for languages, she also had a love for music which eventually led her to the love of her life.

“I loved Frank Sinatra. He was my hero; he still is. I used to get in a car with my boyfriend and another good friend on Saturday night and play Frank Sinatra all night long. Eventually, my boyfriend became my husband; I had liked him since kindergarten. He used to play with the Leggie Strike Hit group in Hollywood, and we were able to get tickets and go there. Those were the days.”