Unexpected monsters

Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem in 1933 that begins approximately like this:

Do not tempt alien tongues – rather try to forget them:
No matter what, you won’t be able to bite glass with your teeth.

It’s not an invective against studying foreign languages, obviously – around that time, Mandelstam was studying Italian to read Dante and other Italian classics. What it is exactly I can’t tell – it’s a poem by a great master after all – but I see a warning in it: beware of what you may find in what you once superficially admired without sufficiently understanding.

What if Ariosto and Tasso, who are charming us,
Are monsters with an azure brain and scales [made] of moist eyes?

I thought about this poem – inadvertently and inappropriately perhaps – when I read of NYC mayor Bill de Blasio accidentally quoting Che Guevara in Florida:

On Thursday, Mr. de Blasio quoted the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara at a labor rally in Miami, offending the local anti-Castro Cuban community.

He later apologized and said that he did not know the Spanish phrase he used — “hasta la victoria siempre,” or “ever onward to victory” — was closely associated with Guevara, Fidel Castro’s close ally during the Cuban revolution in the 1950s.

I would venture the guess that American learners of Spanish tend to underestimate its contextual richness. For a native English speaker with a rich vocabulary, Spanish is relatively easy to understand as well as to speak at an elementary level. Since it’s generally less prestigious than English in the US – the language of manual workers and of Mexican telenovelas to some Anglos – one would expect certain learners to underappreciate its complexity beyond the merely grammatical dimension.

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