Observations on Language Learning


This is a great example of how Chinese writing has changed over time.

This is a great example of how Chinese writing has changed over time.

No one will ever accuse me of being a polyglot, but I’ve dabbled with quite a few languages: French, Latin, German, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, a little Russian and most recently Chinese, both spoken and written with the goal of becoming fluent enough to conduct business and read a newspaper entirely in Mandarin.

Putting Latin aside, since it isn’t spoken as anyone’s primary language anymore, Chinese is the one language I’ve studied where people go out of their way to compliment you for attempting to speak their language, no matter how badly you mangle the pronunciation. There may be other cultures that are encouraging and forgiving of mistakes but Chinese seems to be unique in just how effusive is the praise for putting together a sentence that most three-year-olds do without any thought such as: “Wo hen hao” or “Hao Chi” (I’m good and it tastes good)

In Chinese the phase “NI HAO” is a sort of universal greeting meaning “hi, how are you” although a direct translation is “you good”. And like “how are you” in English, the only expected answer is fine. When in China merely uttering these two words meant that people told me that my Chinese was very good and I had a great accent. Since Chinese is a tonal language that very few adult learners master fully, I have to conclude that the culture of politeness is at work given the small data set and my almost total atonality.

The same things happen here in the US with immigrants from China. If I get into a brief conversation with them in Chinese – the same two things are said usually verbatim: “you speak Chinese so well” and “you have such a good accent”.  Maybe so, but highly unlikely.

It’s not that other people and cultures aren’t appreciative of efforts to speak their language – it’s just that Chinese people will correct your pronunciation all the while telling you how good your pronunciation is. Here are some of the reactions that my attempts at using other languages have elicited.

If I use my limited Japanese – there is invariably surprise followed by a smile. No matter where I attempt it. One day I was NYC riding a hotel elevator when an elderly Japanese couple tried to board struggling withtheir luggage. As I was helping them get their suitcases on board I asked them “O-GENKI DESU KA?” (which is sort of a universal how are you or how are things going). They both looked up in surprise saying nothing for a few seconds, then smiled and rapidly broke into full Japanese. Of course my Japanese is limited to a few polite phrases and random food/drink words gleaned from 3 months working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant in high school so I just smiled and nodded back at them.  Once they realized my conversational skills had been exhausted they also just smiled and nodded. Not an especially significant moment in anyone’s day, but we all left the elevator with smiles on our faces.

In Russia – possibly because of my pronunciation – my less-than-perfect attempts at local language usage usually  elicited complete non-reactions or the occasional shrug. It didn’t matter whether it was a waiter, cab driver or coat check Babushka – saying good day or good evening or asking a simple question with my limited Russian wasn’t commented on once. Maybe they knew my vocabulary was limited, maybe I was speaking gibberish or maybe they just didn’t care. Who knows but it’s the only place I’ve been where trying to use the local language had zero effect.

In Italy, my pidgin Italian was usually greeted by a smile and immediate English usage – sometimes of equivalent quality to my Italian. But older Italians who didn’t know English would keep trying to communicate with me in Italian if I made an effort. Again smiling and nodding seemed fairly universal. A smile and a shrug went a long way usually followed by the two-handed handshake. Then an admixture of English, Italian and pantomime followed proving surprisingly effective.

In Spain I managed to bargain for an evening in small cottage completely in Spanish and pantomime with an elderly gentleman despite, or maybe because I was, sleep deprived not having slept for two days because of work and travel. The cottage was quite nice in a very old building with 18-inch thick walls and 5-foot-high doorways.  During the rest of the trip as my command of Spanish improved, aside from some pronunciation difficulties with words like lapiz, people would speak slower for me, but I was able to accomplish what I needed to everywhere we went almost entirely in Spanish – mostly because in the smaller towns we visited we found very few English speakers.

Even here in the states, I’m able to use the Spanish I learned while working as a photojournalist in the unlikeliest of places. I was at a convenience store waiting in a line with some surly customers, angry at being delayed in purchasing their sodas and junk food. When my turn to pay came and the cashier said thank you with a very strong Spanish accent, I replied with De Nada. Her smile at hearing my use of  the simple “it’s nothing” (equivalent to “You’re welcome”) made me smile and she stood a little straighter, for a few moments at least.

I’ve never visited Germany except for brief layovers, but while in Russia I had a long conversation in German with a German businessman about the intricacies of the hose and pipe business in Russia. Initially I understood about 1/4 of it but as the conversation progressed my understanding gradually increased so that I could actually carry my part of the conversation and not just smile and nod. Apparently those endless hours studying flash cards embedded German vocabulary somewhere deep in my brain.

The other phenomenon that kept occurring in Russia, and also while learning Portuguese, is that sometimes German would come surging forth from my brain in an answer to a question in Russian or Portuguese. Not sure why searching for a word in one language in my mind brought forth the right word only in an entirely different language.

In Brazil I was once taken for a native Brazilian, a laughable conclusion for many reasons, the least of which is my limited command of Portuguese. This must have been because I tend to both speed up and mumble another language when trying to speak it. It seems that I tend to be more understood the less understandable I am if that makes any sense at all.

A flaky croissant and a good cafe au lait approaches perfection.

A flaky croissant and a good cafe au lait approaches perfection.

And finally French. Learning French as an 8th-grader is a disservice, both to the teen-ager and to the French language. The less said about my first forays into French, the better. Luckily my desire for good food and wine have helped overcome those early disastrous lessons in French. So much so, that I now have a competent command of menu french and a few polite phrases especially once I  discovered the power of the simple “Ca Va?” in all of its many permutations.

Learning a new language is humbling and scary forcing you to take the risk of looking like a fool and being willing to try new things. But those risks are always rewarded. Whether its practical knowledge that allows you to overcome the logistics of international travel, or the simple satisfaction that comes from reading a newspaper in another language or the ability to make a connection with someone from a different background than you. I’m glad I spent, and still spend, all of those hours of studying foreign languages. I know I’m a better person for it and not just because I can order my dinner in six languages. What interesting stories do you have about language learning? -t

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