Ear­li­er this week, Har­ry Brod wrote about a cou­ple of say­ings with which he dis­agrees and why he always has a valid pass­port. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I’ve been told that stu­dents in my col­lege cours­es some­times have trou­ble fol­low­ing what I’m say­ing because I speak backwards.

The prob­lem is the order in which I put words in a sen­tence. Hav­ing grown up in a Yid­dish and Ger­man speak­ing house­hold, I seem to think in the struc­ture of those lan­guages even when I’m speak­ing Eng­lish. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.

I think of Cyn­thia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yid­dish sen­tences in Eng­lish. Some years ago I was invit­ed to deliv­er a lec­ture on Ozick’s won­der­ful paired short sto­ry and novel­la The Shawl and Rosa. I made this point by read­ing a few words from one of the first sen­tences in Rosa: Her meals she had else­where.” That, I point­ed out, is not stan­dard Eng­lish prose. In Eng­lish one would nor­mal­ly say She had her meals else­where.” Stan­dard Yid­dish sen­tence con­struc­tion is what it is.

I’ve learned that my stu­dents don’t have the patience to try to under­stand dif­fer­ent accents or speech pat­terns. When I’ve sent them to hear guest speak­ers on cam­pus, if the speak­er has a notice­able accent many of them come back report­ing that the speak­er was very dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to under­stand. But it’s not true. With pret­ty min­i­mal effort the ear adjusts. It’s that they were unwill­ing to make the effort.

A few years ago some stu­dents orga­nized a pan­el dis­cus­sion where they invit­ed sev­er­al fac­ul­ty mem­bers to speak about our var­i­ous iden­ti­ties and how they inter­act­ed with each oth­er (the aca­d­e­m­ic term for this is inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty,” a top­ic they wished to explore fur­ther than they had done in their class­es). One of the iden­ti­ties I claimed is that Eng­lish is not my first lan­guage. I was born in Berlin and came to the US with my par­ents at age two. I told the stu­dents that I was always impressed by how well those among them who were mono­lin­gual were doing with that hand­i­cap. I expressed my admi­ra­tion for how with only one set of idioms and word choic­es in which to express them­selves they seemed to be man­ag­ing quite well, and appar­ent­ly had come up with cre­ative ways to keep them­selves from being bored. As I spoke I was enjoy­ing watch­ing the two Asian stu­dents sit­ting up front hav­ing a great time with it.

After a cou­ple of years in Iowa I noticed that I was think­ing in Yid­dish and Ger­man more than I used to. I was tempt­ed to attribute it to my regress­ing back to a sort of sec­ond child­hood as I age, but I think there’s more to it than that. Hav­ing grown up in New York City and then hav­ing lived for many years in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, I’m used to being sur­round­ed by the vary­ing sounds of dif­fer­ent tongues. Here in the plain Plains, I miss it, rel­a­tive­ly sur­round­ed as I am by lin­guis­tic mono­lith­ic monot­o­ny. So I think I’ve inter­nal­ly recre­at­ed that diver­si­ty for myself. It’s one way to han­dle a dias­poric exis­tence.

Har­ry Brod is a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and human­i­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North­ern Iowa and the author of Super­man is Jew­ish?: How Com­ic Book Super­heroes Came to Serve Truth, Jus­tice, and the Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Way (Free Press; Novem­ber 2012).