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PostImmersed in Two New Languages at Once: Montreal, 1947 (Leo Goldberger, USA, 03/22/21 2:49 am)
In response to John's question about my knowledge of English (or French, spoken by some 70% in Montreal at the time) when I arrived there as a 17-year old immigrant from Denmark, I can simply say it was quite poor--though the Danish school system had required courses in English and German quite early in the primary grades as well as in the 3 years of "middle school" (with the addition of Swedish in the 6th or 7th grades). Finally in the optional 4-year Gymnasium, we had Latin, Greek or French as a chosen specialty or the Sciences for the 4-year Gymnasium Final Exam (for students planning to enter the University). I chose the science sequence, as ironically, language was not my forte!
However, the sort of "school English" I could muster was actually quite limited in terms of practical usage on this side of the Atlantic. Our Danish teachers were mostly Oxford English trained, and Shakespeare and other such literary greats afforded less than practical readings.
Coming to America and asking a stranger for the nearest WC was futile, if not an uncomfortable challenge. How would I have known it was called "a John"? And, further as an illustration of the idiomatic barrier between languages, my experience on my first "date" serves as a humorous example: my "date" (by the way, a term I only learned on this side of the Atlantic) to my bewilderment kept using the phrase as we chatted: "You are pulling my leg." And, of course, I had no idea what she was referring to. Simple descriptive concepts, such as a "Subway," were beyond my ken. And then there was a memorable experience I had in a restaurant: it offered a "special", namely a "Turkey Dinner!"--which turned out to have nothing Turkish about it--and as I recall, we didn't even raise turkeys in Denmark, not in my time at least. Embarrassing, to say the least.
In any case, my father's friend, Victor Borge, who had himself undergone a similar experience when he arrived to America in 1940, advised me on my arrival to go see several American movies a week and to always carry a pocket-size Danish Dictionary. He had also encountered some humorous incidents, which became part of his act. For example, when someone asked him "Do you understand?", he would look up at the ceiling replying: "standing under what?"
Living in Montreal in my initial five years at McGill University, it became quite clear that one spoke either English or French. There was an inherent discrimination in Quebec province at the time. I hardly ever encountered a French-Canadian--except a streetcar conductor or policeman, but never a McGill student. The French-Canadians had their own schools and universities.
While I was grateful for my basic introduction to English--including the automatic Canadian "eh" after quite a few sentences--I was not much in favor of the obvious sense of discrimination against the French-Canadians, not just between the English and the French-Canadians, but against us Jews as well. At least in my years at McGill, I was not welcome in any fraternities, a sort of segregation, which as a Jewish Dane I was quite unfamiliar with. Neither in Denmark nor in Sweden--where I ended up spending some 2 years as a refugee from the German occupation during the roundup in 1943--was I a victim of such irrational encounters. And in my long-term tenure at New York University I was a always among friends...
Thanks as ever for your kind interest!
JE comments: Leo, I am intrigued by your experiences. History, language, the mixing of different cultures, and personal anecdote are ingredients for the perfect WAIS post! If I calculate correctly, before the age of 20 you had mastered five languages--Danish, Swedish, German, English, and French. Did you learn any Hungarian from your mother? I stand (not understand) in awe.
I've pestered you sufficiently for the present, but when time permits, please tell us more about the legend, Victor Borge. Did you see him often when you settled later in New York? I just refreshed my memory of the "Clown Prince of Denmark," and Wikipedia tells us that during the Nazi occupation, Borge (1909-2000) returned to his homeland disguised as a sailor to visit his dying mother. That took real chutzpah.