Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Harlot approaches Tower of Babel

I’ve always been interested in languages. Well, always. Right. Since I was six, then.

We moved around a lot when I was kid. I began kindergarten in September in Los Angeles and continued on to finish first grade that June in Washington, D. C.

That’s how smart I was when I was six.  Whoo hooo! Are you not impressed?

My best friend in Washington was another new girl, Christiane, who’d also arrived midyear. She came from France. I think she started out not knowing a word of English. We shared a double-desk (oh, the olden days!) and I was supposed to help her if she had questions. 

Six-year old expateek, teacher’s aide.

Christiane soon far out-stripped my limited ability to help. I think she needed me for all of about four minutes. After all, she was two years older and could already read, write, and do maths. And in French! Within a couple of months she was promoted to the next grade, and within the year, I’d moved away again, this time to Wisconsin.

But spending time with Christiane and her family made me desperate to learn French. Once in Madison, when I’d gotten my own library card, I checked out the children’s Learn French book month after month after month. I read Madeleine, and all those children’s books about Paris and “la belle France”. I was smitten. I was sure if I worked hard enough, I could teach the language to myself, by myself.

Christiane and I corresponded over the years as pen-pals, but it wasn’t until grade 7 that I could choose French as an elective. I studied French through high school and on into university, and I've taken French classes and studied the language off and on ever since. 

If the number of French books and dictionaries purchased had a direct effect on fluency, I'd be a genius in French. 

Sadly enough, buying a book several thousand books doesn't get the contents into one's head. I can get along easily in French, entirely thanks to my impossibly strict, Sorbonne-educated high school French teacher, Mme. Nestler. But I would never call myself fluent. I reserve that word for those who’ve lived in a francophone country for a few years. Not me, not yet.

But that wasn’t the only language study I attempted. In high school, we had the option to study Russian. It was the Sputnik era: high Cold War tension all over. And my little language classroom in Madison, Wisconsin was going to be the secret weapon by which America would WIN the Cold War. I took Russian for two years, but remember little. Just an overall feeling of terror and imminent doom, which was intimately associated with the Byzantine complexity of Russian grammar, including cases, variable endings, and a whole lot of other mind-blowing bits and bobs.

You'll notice that this is the Simplified Russian Grammar. As opposed to the Incredibly Complicated and Entirely Impossible to Understand Russian Grammar. 

Because truth in advertising hadn't been invented yet, back when I was a teen.

You'll also notice that I was deep into my "tiny writing" phase during high school. 

How small can you write? This actually had a practical application, because for the final end-of-year Russian exam, we were allowed to bring in exactly one page of notes as an "aide memoire". Clearly, the advantage goes to a Tiny Writer. I tried to get this whole book onto 2 sides of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. Pretty nearly succeeded too. Ahhh, the joys of miniaturisation.

Good thing it wasn’t up to me to defend our country with my awesome language skills. Oddly enough, last week whilst in Turkey I was trying to resurrect some Russian, as the four major languages used in Turkey appear to be Turkish, English, Russian, and German. Who’da thunk it?

Check out this sad little girl who's thinking, "Why on earth did they take my picture wearing those hideous goggles? It's almost child abuse. God, the shame! I'll never live this down." 

However... she can probably think that thought in four different languages. So good on her!

At university, I continued my French, but dropped Russian and added German. Because I was in luuuurrve with a boy who had lived for a year in Germany, and I thought it would be so thrilling to whisper sweet little German nothings in my true love's ear. 

Whatever. He dumped me two months into the school year, so by November I was despising German and everything about it. Happily, German had fewer cases than Russian, and no Cyrillic alphabet, but I had to complete the entire year of the class to gain credit for the course. So for another six months I got to think about my fabulous ex-boyfriend every single day in German class. Didn’t do much for my study habits.

Also note that the textbook and I didn't get along very well. German: A Structural Approach. Frankly, I like to approach my language studies pell-mell and with absolutely no discernible plan in mind. After all, it's a pretty random process, learning a language. Leave it to the Germans to pretend that there's an organised way to do it. I resent the whole idea.

The dialogues for German were entertaining, however. Check this one out.

And here.

Of course.... Hepatitis? Whiskey? What were you thinking, Fritz? Please! 

Maybe, Fritz, if you didn't drink so much, you could see better AND you wouldn't have so many children. AND you wouldn't have to WORK so much, leaving your wife Inge alone for long days with all those shrieking little brats of yours. 

In fact I think, Fritz, that Inge is already on her way to Frankfurt to buy that little red sports car. And I think Dr. Anton Fischer's footing the bill. Too bad you didn't listen to my advice early on. Lay off the schnapps, buddy! And the whiskey. It's your funeral, pal.

Those Germans sure drank a lot didn't they? I would have too, had I continued on with German 201.

Fast forward to three years ago. As I relocated to South Africa, I decided to work on learning Afrikaans. I mostly taught myself using audio CD's and children's books.

Though I put my current reading level at about a 10 year old’s,

it’s given me lots of pleasure, and I enjoy visiting my little Afrikaans-speaking neefies when in London. At this point, the South African diaspora touches all countries in the world. Truly, every time I turn around I run into a Saffer, so there’s certainly some entertainment value in knowing a bit of daardie taal.

And now, of course, Polish. Mmmm. More books.

It helps to have studied Russian, even if that was back in the Dark Ages. At least I absorbed the shock and horror of all those variable endings and cases years ago… so now there’s only the hard, hard business of really learning it.

Every day I try to practice a little more. The fish lady at the Bomy supermarket gets a funny look on her face whenever I approach. I just know she’s thinking, “Whatever will come out of her mouth this time? I musn’t laugh!” Especially because it generally seems to kill Polish people to smile in public

My work is never done.... 

Mission: provide endless amusement to Poles in all walks of life. 

So far, brilliant success!


Don said...

Fritz and his hepatitis! Now that was one of your best, made me laugh out loud.....

expateek said...

Oooh! Thanks! You can tell I wasn't really paying attention in German class, can't you?