“J’aurai besoin d’une seule nuit,” exclaimed a slightly nervous 16-year-old gal we’ll call Marguerite, seated at her Oklahoma City office desk amongst a couple coworkers, on the phone to a hotel reservations line.
“I will only need one night,” she had said in French.
“Pas de problème,” replied the reservationist. “No problem.”
Typing steadily on the other end of the phone line, he barraged the young lady with the questions required to set aside a hotel reservation.
Would you prefer our property on the east or the west side of I-35? How many guests would there be? How many rooms will you need? May I interest your party in continental breakfast for a small additional fee?
And so the young French-speaking lady continued successfully booking herself a hotel suite in a nearby midwestern American city.
Using a language she had only studied for three years in the classroom.
Three years’ worth. In a classroom.
If the French speaker at the hotel reservation line could detect an American Okie accent, he kept it to himself.
And so, a fake hotel reservation was made in that windowless upstairs office in an Oklahoma department store. “Marguerite” was 16, and she was slightly nervous, it’s true.
But English was Margaret’s native tongue. Not French. Not by a long shot.
This is a true story, only the name was changed to protect the innocent guilty.
I'm the Marguerite in this story. I'm a little older now, and it says Margaret on my birth certificate, but I was not about to let the happenstance of my ordinary Okie birth stop me from showing off just a little bit.
Truth or Dare
I remember the occasion of this crank phone call like it was yesterday, although it was, in fact, several decades ago.
At the time, I worked in telephone sales with a few other teens in the aforementioned windowless office. I recall that we set up professional portrait package appointments.
One of my young co-workers was an immigrant from Cuba. I’ll call him Sergio.
Sergio was very, very cute. We didn’t speak a whole lot with each other at first, but I remember overhearing him during break time, on the phone with his mother speaking Spanish. Not having studied a lick of Spanish at that point, I couldn’t understand a word.
What I did understand, and hoped to impress Sergio with? I’ll give you one guess!
So That’s Why
As I recall my train of thought all these years later, I know I had been curious whether my three years acing junior and senior high school French would make me sound like a native speaker.
As I note in my upcoming book, I knew I was doing quite well in my studies. Heck, with few mistakes under my belt, I spoke French pretty much better than anyone in my classroom!
But at this point in my language journey, I yearned to accurately gauge my fluency. As a skeptical teenage nerd/rebel, I was not about to trust anything encouraging my teacher might say.
Non. I had to put my skills to the real-world test. That meant trying to fool an unknown French speaker into thinking I was as fluent a speaker as could be.
(Few people ever accuse teens of painstakingly logical thought, you know?)
And anyway, on top of seeking to test my mad language skillz, I wanted to go out with Sergio. That meant I had to impress him.
My looks were only so-so. I wasn’t rich, and I couldn’t flirt my way out of a paper cul-de-sac.
What was an average nerd/rebel to do to snag the young man of her dreams?
The answer was obvious. I needed to speak another language on the phone, myself! Ha!
E.T. Phone Home
So the end result was yes, I did it.
No cover was blown in the making of my hotel reservations call. If the hotel employee detected I was just pulling a faux-sophisticated “Got Prince Albert in a can?” scheme, he blessedly never said so.
Oh, and I also did end up going out with Sergio! We saw E.T. at the theatre together. That’s all I still remember of him and our date. His Spanish phone calls home (eat your Reeses Pieces heart out, E.T.), his taking me to a movie, and his being cute linger in the far recesses of my mind to this day.
All this is to say you never know when being bilingual will come in handy.
So keep plugging away at that tricky Russian grammar.
Figure out French pronunciation – like, why do they use five letters to spell a word that could be spelled with only one (“Q”)?
Why not go gross and go German?
Languages can be challenging, but they can be such a thrill, too.
And you just might win a date with the Sergio of your dreams!
I’d love to know what unusual benefits you’ve gotten from studied another language.
And if you’re still monolingual currently, what do you hope to benefit? Let me know in the comments!