More than 50 years ago, Alston Smith, the venerable registrar at Gorham Normal School, collected a brave band of students and booked them on a summer flight to Europe. Through the ages, learning several languages in foreign parts of the world was part of a young person’s education, and Gorham graduates were not to be left wanting.

My buddy Tom Dennen and I very excitedly signed aboard with Mr. Smith, for we had both already lived abroad. Soon after we arrived, Dennen and I motored from Sweden down to Paris on two mopeds. Although we soon discovered that when you figured in the cost of food and gas, it was cheaper to travel with the bikes on a train.

As we wandered about in the fabled Quartier Pigalle, admiring the red windmill and other wonders, we were accosted by a street vendor who spoke to us in English. I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a blank stare. Undaunted, he shifted over to French – and then German.

I can’t say now for sure, but he might have hit us with Russian or Greek before I looked at Dennen and said, with my Maine version of Swedish, “Do you have any idea of what this guy wants?” Whereupon, the man shifted gears, as it were, and said in very excited Swedish, “Ah so. You are Swedish. Look. Look. Would you like to buy some of these postcards?”

This talented polyglot came to mind the other night while listening to Dr. Michael Erard lecture on multi-lingualism at Maine’s own Penobscot School in Rockland. He had with him his most recent book, “Babel No More,” which is the result of his search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. Dr. Erard told us fascinating stories about strange people. One man sat up all night studying languages, even though it meant he might not be able to get out of bed and go to work the next day.

How is it possible for a person to learn 40, 10 or even two languages? Is it simply a matter of concentrated effort to the exclusion of everything else? You certainly remember hearing of the little boy who was able to play the most difficult violin concertos before he was 12. His mother said that the following year she planned to teach him how to walk and feed himself.

Before 1950, there was at St. George High School a reading book that contained a story about a young man who learned to speak German with a friend. Later, he learned Spanish from another friend. The point of the story was that, because of his language skills, he was able to find excellent employment when he finished school. This is even more true today.

A question raised at the Penobscot School lecture was, “What constitutes fluency in a language? How well do you have to read or speak French before you can claim to know French? Is it enough to be able to buy a ticket on the Metro, or must you be able to deliver, in French, a lecture on nuclear physics at the Sorbonne?”

Any Maine man who has tried to buy a train ticket in Paris will tell you that it would be easier to give a lecture at the Sorbonne. Even if you manage to buy a ticket, the first time through you don’t know what to do with it when you finally do have it, and more than one inexperienced traveler has jumped over or ducked under a stile.

Someone at the meeting quite astutely pointed out that there are many kinds of English. A person from Manhattan or the Bronx would have a struggle to understand the English spoken in India – or in some towns between Kittery and Belfast.

One of the fun things about learning two or three languages as an adult is the discovery that words that look or sound the same in two languages might not mean the same in both. In Dutch, “ramp” means “disaster,” so a man from Amsterdam seeing “ramp ahead” on a U. S. thruway would either smile or proceed with caution.

Before they are 30 and settle down and marry, young Swedes, Germans or Danes might have lived and worked in several parts of the world, so it is normal for most young Europeans to speak four or five languages. Those who can carry on a conversation in eight or 10 languages might well be older people who have swept out the lobby of a train station or sold coffee in a metropolitan kiosk for 30 years. In Maine, a person who speaks anything but their mother tongue is a curiosity.

And, after all, why would a Maine man spend his life becoming fluent in several languages when he’d never get to use them? And when all is said and done, isn’t there only one sentence any traveler needs to know in any language?

It is: “My friend will pay.”

The humble Farmer can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website:

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: