I spoke Spanish when I was a very little kid. We spent time in Mexico where my dad was working and our babysitter was Mexican. My mom was horrified when she spoke to me, and I answered in Spanish. But… In sixth grade I started Spanish in school. It was really, really, really boring and, strangely, I mixed up Spanish and Italian. Yeah, that’s it. My babysitter in Denver when I was very little was our Italian next-door neighbor.

Unfortunately, all the way through school, the highest level of language offered was intermediate, so I’m a master of intermediate Spanish. But it’s OK. I learned way back then that there’s a difference between studying a language and learning it. Anyway, I speak Spanish happily if not perfectly. I miss having the opportunity here in the back-of-beyond.

Freshman year in college — with a dream of going to Morocco — I started French. My teacher was a harridan from Geneva. Really a fascist. Anyway, French with its completely illogical spelling (English is a lot less illogical) and it’s romance roots (Spanish’ cousin) made it a different kind of challenge. When we had our first dictation I wrote everything the teacher said — in Spanish. She was furious. She thought I’d done this on purpose to ridicule her, to ridicule French. I didn’t even know I’d done that! I just never went back and got an F. In grad school, I took French at night school and found it to be pretty easy and fun, except for pronunciation. French spelling adds gratuitous letters; French pronunciation leaves them out. Mon dieu!

I finally made friends with French through le cinéma.

My sophomore year in college, I began to study Homeric Greek. My professor had learned it in school — all the way through school, Jesuit school — and he had his book photocopied (a HUGE deal back in 1973) and my classmate and I read The Odyssey. Every night we had five lines to struggle with as homework, every morning at 8 am (my professor’s way of blackmailing me into better sleep habits) we appeared in his office with our translations. Then we read EVERYTHING we’d translated. Since Homeric Greek isn’t exactly a living language, we were not obliged to endless pronunciation practice. All we had to do was read. I loved it. And, because of it, I was able to join what Mr. Preston called, “A brotherhood across time.”

It was a THRILL to study the language that way and influenced me forever as a teacher of language (English as a Second Language) and language learner. I’m all “bring it on, give me the real stuff!” It works much better for me than does the endless repetition of grammar drills. I think the normal way of teaching language teaches people to hate studying languages. The willingness to make mistakes is important. Native speakers don’t wait until they speak perfectly before opening their mouths to communicate with others. Why should non-native speakers? Those mistakes can be great ice-breakers.

Then came China and for two years before I even got a job, I studied Chinese. That was the most FUN language to study because writing it makes sense and there are NO verb tenses. Learning to write was meditative and aesthetic, plus Chinese characters have a different kind of logic than our semi-phonetic alphabets.

About ten years ago I decided to study German because, you know, Goethe. I got Rossetta Stone (it’s good, by the way) and began studying German every night before going to bed. Little by little I was learning German, though it frustrated me in a way because the vocabulary was so easy. It’s English, essentially, if the student has a little imagination and language background.

When I finally did go to a German speaking country (Switzerland, Zürich) I was able to understand most of the things I heard in high German. So far there’s no Rossetta Stone for Schwitzer Deutsch but if there were, I’d buy it today. While I was there last, in 2016, I was having dinner with a Swiss friend and his German girlfriend. Between them, they usually speak (spoke? She might have learned Swiss German by now) high German. At one point, I joined the conversation without even realizing I was speaking German. They didn’t notice, either. It was strange and magical until I realized what I was doing. Then I got worried about making mistakes.

So now, to make meaningful use of time when I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on any creative work, I’ve gone back to studying Italian using Rossetta Stone. My problem is double letters. It’s a problem in English; it’s worse in Italian. I’m having a hard time getting past the writing tests. 😦

And why am I reading this, Martha?

So…I don’t know if anyone else has noticed how bizarre the news reporting in this country is. For a long time I’ve been aware of the absence of real international news. This is especially in my house where the only paper I get is the Monte Vista Journal which I usually throw out almost immediately. I read it, but I subscribe in case I need a clipping of myself. 🙂

Last night a friend sent me a link to a Swiss paper, the Tages-Anzeiger, which publishes a lot of international news, not just Swiss but in remote places all over the world. The reportage in Switzerland is different from that in the US. I would say it’s more honest, more complete, less politicized, more informative. The headline to this article was “In the night, come the coffins.” Yes, that’s pretty melodramatic, but this is real life. The lead photo shows a long line of army trucks ostensibly (I’m deeply skeptical, sorry) carrying coffins to the crematorium. The article was about the situation in Bergamo, Italy.

He sent me the paper to prove that the situation in Switzerland is dire. Like a lot of people, he had only read the headlines. As he made his argument I kind of tuned him out and kept reading. Then I corrected him. “It’s Italy. Not Switzerland. This article is about the deaths in Bergamo.” My friend is Swiss. His first language is German. His second is Italian. He was stunned and had to say those words that come so reluctantly from his mouth, “You’re right.” I was really proud of myself for having been able to correct him in his native language.

The point here (beyond bragging of my linguistic prowess which is really not that great. I’m a solid intermediate in many languages) is that the truth is out there.

48 thoughts on “Languages…

  1. I thought I could speak Spanish. I had been traveling in South America for several weeks by then. One rainy day, the owner of my hotel stopped by my room to chat. It took only a few minutes to realize that, while I could order food, rent a room,
    or buy something in a market in Spanish, I couldn’t actually talk about real life. I cried. Five years later I lived and studied in Mexico. On a late night train ride, I was talking with someone who then went to get us some soft drinks. While he was gone I glanced at my watch and realized that two hours had passed. I was actually talking, not just conducting a transaction. When he returned, he saw something in my demeanor had changed. I told him the story from five years prior. When he got off the train, I cried again. It was different this time.

    • Isn’t that just a really great feeling? When I yelled in Chinese at a China Travel Service minion (government sanctioned rip-off artist) for 3 solid minutes I wasn’t even mad any more. I was astounded. 🙂

  2. In high school, I took two years of French. So did all the Spanish kids (I went to high school in ‘Little Puerto Rico’). They aced the language; not so for all us English-only kids. They did teach us the curse words, though….

    • French curse words are THE BEST!!! “Quel est tu probleme? As-tu été mal baisée?” (probably spelled wrong… “What’s your problem? Have you been poorly fucked?”

    • In Mexico I had a whole day’s lesson in curse words. We spent a good hour on the most versatile word in the language (which is closely related to the same word in English, which can be used as virtually any part of speech in its various forms). There is actually a dictionary of that word published in Mexico.

      • I had a student from Colombia, an elegant beautiful woman, married to a Mexican diplomat. The word “pendejo” was slang in Colombia but a harsh obscenity in Mexico. She told me that the first time she used it around her husband (who was pretty stodgy) he was horrified and gave her a whole lecture on her role as a diplomat’s wife. Great word though.

  3. I won’t mention my poor language skills, only to say my mom wanted me to be a bilingual secretary. Suffice to say I failed German. I really wanted to do Geography instead.
    News in the UK, thirty nine more deaths in England today, three in Wales. Don’t know about the other parts of the UK. People are panic buying. Things like loo roll have disappeared and as soon as the supermarkets restock its gone again. What are people doing, eating the stuff?!

  4. You know my position with languages. I learnt quite a few, even 20 years Russian, but I have now forgotten a lot. After living 53 years in Switzerland and having Mr. Swiss for 51 of them, I am really quite fluent in Swiss German, it is my daily language. My kids speak it and I speak it all day. It is Solothurn German dialect that I speak, which is very similar to the Bern dialect. The dialect in Zürich is much different and they use other expressions.
    Italy is very hard hit by this virus and our Italian speaking Kanton, Ticino, is in shut down being on the border of Italy. Switzerland is a very small country and this virus is spreading fast, too fast. I am lucky to live in Solothurn as it is one of the least affected places, but that can change daily.

    • ❤ Today I got an email from Switzerland (the country). It said, "Switzerland will be waiting for you." I got tears in my eyes. It had pictures of places to go when this is over, one the Tremelo which I ride on the Bike-to-Nowhere. Reading the Swiss newspaper last night was, except for the linguistic triumph, very sobering. I have a good friend in Italy and it's scary. We're in contact, but it's still scary. Take care of you, Pat. ❤

  5. I mastered pig Latin at one time. 🤔💚 seriously though, kuddos 👏🏻 I love learning and wish to know many languages.

  6. Three years of high school Spanish enabled me to ask where the library is and Donde esta el bano? Asking where the bathroom is never came in handy, but it was always at the ready just in case. My Opa, whose family was from Germany, taught my younger brother German curse words. Not appropriate for the granddaughters. I was not happy.
    The toilet paper fascination is rampant in my town as well. Bizarre what people fixate on that has nothing to do with surviving the crisis we are in. Close to 500 “pending results” in my state (NH). It feels like the boom is about to drop. Dread hangs over everything. Reliable news from the rest of the world is hard to come by – except via my blogging friends.

    • They teach us really stupid stuff in language classes in school. I was lucky in Spanish to have had all native speakers who were not really trained in teaching. We did the book but under everything was the idea of communicating and stories (in Spanish) about the worlds they’d come from.

      I buy TP once a year from Amazon because my town has a very old sewer system that’s fragile. Life with a septic system taught me to respect that. I order it because I can’t find what I know is safe at the store. Ironically, two weeks ago was the time for me to order my annual supply. I ordered, I paid, it NEVER arrived. I learned today that Amazon had cancelled the order. It’s pretty funny. Why Americans never got into using bidets is a mystery to me. 🙂

      Well, enough scatalogical analysis…

  7. I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with learning languages. My kindergarten teacher taught us French, and we – minds like sponges – learned quickly. But no follow-up in later grades, until 7th, when I switched to Spanish because that’s what my friends took. Basic rote learning of words, boring, reminded me of being forced to play scales by a piano teacher when what I wanted to do was play songs. Didn’t stick. Switched back to French in high school, had a great teacher who made it fun, took us to dinner at an authentic French restaurant with amazing dinner and dessert crepes. But no place to practice, so quickly forgotten (although some basics came back to me while driving around Europe many years later). In college, not wanting to start over again with French and risk being bored, I took Persian; like you with Chinese, I loved learning a new way of writing language. And I had Persian friends with whom to practice, making it fun and real. But again, quickly forgotten because not used once I left college.

    It has always seemed to me that the best way to learn a language is to learn practical, every-day phrases right before visiting the country so that you’re forced to practice, mistakes and all. Keep it fun, no shame in making mistakes. I think most humankind is forgiving of mistakes when one isn’t speaking their native tongue; at least, I hope they are.

    So are you planning an eventual trip to Italy, practice your new skills and maybe to see the fish in Venice’s canals?

    • I doubt I’ll be going back to Italy, but, well, it’s a long story. 🙂 I studied Italian in Verona in 2004. I’ve been in Italy I guess four or five times. I think the only way to learn a language is to use it. You’re right get some fundamentals and go talk to people. And read.

  8. My only experience with foreign news is BBC America.

    For some reason the school I attended placed no language on any language but English. Latin and German were available but not required. I had no time for them, having heavied up on all the hard science classes I could take. So I never learned any of them.

    I have picked up some Spanish. How can you live in LA and not? A few words in Japanese but not enough for a conversation.

    When I entered college they asked me in an interview if I knew any languages. With a straight face I said “FORTRAN.” I was duly recorded as being multi-lingual.

      • My dad taught me to speak FORTRAN. During the time he was still working (he was a wargamer for the DOD) and coding at home, he couldn’t write. I came home from school and he dictated code to me which I wrote on the coding sheets. When I started using computers myself back in the 80s I found I had a strange ability to program in sainted APPLE BASIC. I just sat there and wrote teaching programs. I couldn’t figure out how I knew that then I remembered all those hours with my dad. It was great fun to write those little programs and fun to teach my students how.

  9. There is definitely a difference between studying a language and learning it. I took German from 5th to 8th grade and was quite good at it. Now, I can converse in German but do get stumped at times.
    I also took it upon myself to learn Spanish at one point but never learnt more than the alphabets and numbers.

    It was nice to read about your adventures with different languages!

  10. I’m just a little envious. I am an obligate English speaker. I took Latin in HS (3 yrs) with one year as spoken Latin. I enjoyed it. Then in college I was required to have 2 semesters of a foreign language and Latin didn’t count. I opted for German since I have German in my genes. Alas all the German classes were filled so I was left with several unsavory choices. I decided that Russian was the least evil alternative. Three semesters later I could translate the written word and profess that I didn’t know the answer because I was an idiot. At this point I can’t speak Russian and only use my Latin at church on rare occasions. The only really good thing that came from my Russian classes was meeting Sparky which has led to a lifetime of love and devotion….

    • It would be. A person doesn’t have to be fluent to make meaningful contact. Good will doesn’t depend on vocabulary and grammar. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Wow, I’m so impressed! I feel like I should speak Finnish to you now! Hienoa, että olet nähnyt vaivaa ja opiskellut suomea! 😊

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