Literate? Think so?

I’m illiterate.
That would make me feel really bad except that I know that you are illiterate. Misery loves company.
What’s that you say? You aren’t illiterate. Of course, you are.
The first time I realized I was illiterate was when I went to Iceland.  I was taken to a language party. The group met on a regular basis. I came in, was introduced to everyone, everyone spoke to me in English, then someone said, “Danish.” Everyone started speaking Danish. Then someone said “German.” And they all started speaking German.
They went through a number of languages before, to my great relief, they worked their way back to English.
What brought back this memory was that on my mother’s last night at the nursing home, I met Josie. At ninety, she can still move furniture. She spoke to me in Icelandic and I had to admit I was illiterate in Icelandic. “Ekki,” I said. 
That ekki really is ekki. Once, in desperation, at six a.m. in the pouring rain in Rejkavik, I managed to make a caretaker understand that I had the use of an apartment and I wanted him to let me in. I dredged up forgotten words from childhood. God knows what he heard.
Every-so-often this happens to me. I’m going along in a kind of unilingual haze, thinking I’m literate and then someone says something in another language or about another language. This happened when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla. Nelson wrote to point out that we’d spelled an Icelandic word incorrectly.
I had to write back and tell him that I’m illiterate in Icelandic.
I’m also illiterate in Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German and Finnish. I’m not just illiterate in Finnish. Confronted with it, my IQ drops to zero. Have you been to Finland? Have you tried to read their signs? They’re in Swedish and Finnish. Thank goodness I can make a guess at the Swedish. But Finnish makes me go back to grade one and the bottom of the class.
Of course, I also realized I was illiterate when I was in Russia. I knew vodka, sputnik and tsar. Try sidling up to an attractive woman in a bar and whispering those words in her ear. They didn’t make me literate. I could print out my name in Russian but with three words and my name, I wasn’t going to read Tolstoy in the original. I wasn’t going to have an intense discussion on the meaning of life. Or order a meal.
After realizing that I was illiterate when I was in various locations, I realized that literacy is determined by geography. It’s not a general state of being. I always thought I was literate because I could read, write and speak English. That didn’t help in Ukraine or Cuba..
If I were smarter, I’d have realized this principle when I was a teenager. A NATO pilot who only spoke French came into the Gimli bakery. He couldn’t make himself understood. Finally, I and a friend who’d taken some basic lessons in French managed to make out that he wanted six tarts. 
There were lessons there about the importance of being literate in many languages but I missed them. I was too focused on skating, girls, pool, girls, hockey, girls. If the girls had said that they wouldn’t go out with us unless with could talk to them in Polish, German, Ukrainian, Icelandic, English instead of grunting, it would have improved our educations immensely.
Most of the time, being illiterate in another language doesn’t matter, even when we are abroad, because we nearly always can find someone who is literate in English.
However, there can be problems in countries where the language is ostensibly English. When I first moved to the United States, we stopped at a restaurant in South Dakota. Not South Carolina. Just across the border from Manitoba. It still felt like home. I asked for a nip and chips. The waitress looked at my oddly and I realized she didn’t understand me.
“Hamburger,” I said.
She nodded, went away and brought back a bag of potato chips. “French fries,” I said. She gave me a wary smile. This was when the Cold War with Russia was still on. I was hoping she wasn’t going to call the FBI. That’s how they catch spies, at least in some movies. The spies can speak English but it’s not idiomatic.
Of course there was the screaming hilarity when we were teenagers and heard an English pilot say that he’d met a very nice local girl and he was going to knock her up.
We get so comfortable in the smallness of our local language that it is easy to forget that in most places, we’re illiterate. When I briefly took over as editor at Logberg-Heimskringla, my lack of literacy in Icelandic came roaring back like a tidal wave, like a raging forest fire, like a meteor shower.
Vinarterta and skyr do not a vocabulary make. Knowing a few scattered words did not help me catch the error in sumardúðir which should have been sumarbúðir.
There are, however, all sorts of people around Winnipeg and among the readers of LH who are literate in Icelandic. They are nearly all women. That´s partly because a lot of the older men have died. Some people say men die off first because they are constitutionally inferior to women. I say men are simply more adventurous, always rushing off ahead, looking for new frontiers. They just can’t help it. It’s the testosterone.
That´s not the whole explanation, though. Do you remember spelling competitions in grade school? The teachers called them spelling bees. I called them humiliate and torture the boys. One half of the class stood on one side of the room and the other half on the other side of the room. The teacher gave you a word. She didn’t even have the decency to whisper it in your ear. She said it out loud. If you spelled it wrong, you had to sit down. I never got sore feet from standing. The last person standing was the person who won the competition. The last person was always a girl.
If the teacher were a sadist, she’d put the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Then the slaughter would begin. It was like machine gunning the boys with double syllable words. Cat, hat, dog, and house were okay but the girls could spell words like Mississippi. It wasn’t fair. They sang that word out when they jumped rope. The problem with girls is that they did their homework and read the dictionary.
If the teacher said to one of the boys, “Why don’t you look up how to spell words in the dictionary?”, the boy would look puzzled and say, “Dictionary?”
For a long time I was illiterate in English. Comic books and newspaper comics and the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood got me over that. I got tired of waiting and hoping that someone would read me the coloured comics on Saturday mornings. I wanted to know what Tarzan was saying to the animals. 
It’s too bad there hadn’t been comic books in Icelandic. I’d have done whatever was necessary to learn to read them. I’d probably have learned Finnish if it meant being able to read comic books. And The Black Arrow and Robinson Crusoe.
That would have still left me illiterate in a lot of languages. My friend Valerie’s father was the only person I’ve ever known who was a polyglot. I think he knew sixteen languages. He could listen to German, say, and send it out as Morse code in English. He knew Swahili. He used to call me Bwana Makuba. Big chief. At least that’s what he said it meant. You never know, do you?
If I had to do it again, I’d do like those Icelandic farmers I keep reading about who taught themselves Danish, German, Latin, English during the long winter evenings. Most of them seem to have done it by reading the Bible. I’d probably choose something a little more light hearted but it would be pretty nice to travel and talk to people in their own language. Makes the argument I hear in Canada about how if a child learns more than one language it’ll fill up his brain and won’t leave room for him to learn to play computer games pretty lame.
   
 (This is why you should give some books to the kids in your family for Christmas. Books they want to read.)