"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ovid, Claudel, Bambara, And Learning Eight Languages

I learned my first foreign language when I was in the seventh grade – Latin; and went on to study it all the way through senior year in high school.  I never used a ‘trot’, for deciphering the complex grammar came easy to me.  I thought of majoring in Classics but was convinced that English Literature would be more practical.  I was not sure how studying Jonson, Sterne, and Trollope would give me any more of a leg up in the real world than Ovid, Cicero, and Catullus, but I deferred to the Dean.

I was at Yale during the era of New Criticism, and all I can remember was Christ imagery.  In every work from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Clifford Odets, Jesus was lurking somewhere.  There He was in “the outstretched arms of the elms”, in laments of loss, redemptive reconciliations, and suckling mothers.  We waited for the predictable, inevitable moment when the professor made one of his lame, tortuously devised references to Jesus and His family.

One professor, in his slavish bondage to the New Criticism, found Christ everywhere, and ruined what we all thought was a simple, straightforward poem of William Blake :

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

What immortal hand or eye could frame the tiger’s symmetry? God the Father, of course, who created fear and set the table for his redeeming Son.  Ah, yes, but was the tiger really created by God or simply myth, the burning desire of Man to express himself against this fulminating and vengeful God? Certainly Blake didn’t write “in the forests of the night” just to give the burning tiger a dramatic backdrop but meant that both the tiger and the night were burning, the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.  And why couldn’t God decide between using his hand or his eye to create the tiger? Because of the duality of vision and reality.  On and on.

As an antidote to this nonsense and in a desire to get back to foreign language territory where I was at home, I took a number of French courses.  The professors were all French and had not been infected by the New Criticism, and dealt with the works from a more understandable historical and dramatic perspective.  I did well in high school, so I was able to take the most advanced French courses as a freshman.  I studied works in Old and Middle French which was just like deciphering a Latin text.  In just one year I was able to trace the development of French from its first texts to modern usage, observe how an archaic, Latinate language morphed into a Romance one with so many words that I recognized.

I learned a lot in four years and read just about every major work in French drama and poetry.  I thought I knew the language well, because since I took all Senior courses, I  had to write long and involved term papers.  I was looking forward to my first trip to France a few years later.

I walked into a bar and confidently ordered a beer. “En bouteille ou sous pression?” the barman asked – did I want it in a bottle or from the tap.  I had no clue what he was talking about.  He repeated himself two or three times, each time speaking more loudly and with more emphasis.  When I still didn’t get it, he grabbed a bottle, jabbed his finger at it, and said, “Une bouteille”; and then jerking some beer from the tap said “Sous pression”. I could discuss Paul Claudel’s Catholicism in Les Souliers de Satin, but I couldn’t order a beer.  I had a lot to learn.

Another day and at another bar, I asked the waiter where I could find the bathroom.  I had practiced this and made sure that I got the right tense, endings, and pronunciation.  When I went in to the small toilet and shut the door, no light went on.  I opened the door, patted the walls, looked everywhere, but could not find the light switch.  “Sur le verrou”, the barman shouted.  Of course I had no idea that in France when you locked the verrou, the light would go on.  Not wanting to ask again, I had to decide to either piss in the dark or piss with the door open.  Neither case was a good one, so I decided that rather than spray the floor, I would keep the door open a crack and at least get a glimpse of my target.

I had no trouble understanding the comment from the bar. Oozing faux politeness and a surprisingly English sarcasm, the bartender said, “If the American gentleman feels more at home pissing on the floor in the dark, he is most welcome to do so”. I later learned that this fuck-you attitude had nothing to do with language.  I went to a men’s clothing store to buy a sports jacket.  I tried many on and they were all too small in the shoulders and too short in the sleeves.  After three or four tries, the salesman said very politely, “Perhaps the American gentleman would be happier if he bought his clothes back in America where the sizes are….” Here he hesitated, then went on, “…more…” Again a brief pause, “…appropriate”.  Meaning of course that no one made clothes for gorillas in France.

I never really got street fluent until I had put in a number of years in French Africa and Haiti.  I could imitate the local, lilting, sing-song accent of Cameroon, the harsher Arab pronunciation of the Moors in Mauritania, and the more correct French of Senegal.  I could mimic the Caribbean slave intonations of Haiti, and the clipped Malay-influenced language of Madagascar.  I learned early on that if you sounded good, people assumed that you were more fluent than you actually were and overlooked mistakes in grammar or phrasing.  This had a downside because as a conversation went along, the native speakers spoke more quickly and used a lot of slang, and you could get quickly lost.  

The worst was being with French Canadians.  They know how difficult it is for foreigners – even French people – to understand their honking and quacking and archaic curses, so they start off with Parisian French before descending into the local dialect, joual, a combination of 16th Century French and American slang. A good example is “rabattre ses ailes de moulin” – beat your arms like a windmill, i.e. talk with your hands; a combination of an old usage of ‘rabattre’ and an image recalling life of 400 years ago.

Elaborate religious references were used all the time. “Hostie, calvaire, tabernacle de char ne part pas”; or “Communion host, Christ on the Cross, Holy Tabernacle fucking car won’t start.” was my favorite.

The more I travelled, the more I learned about French and language itself.  From  accents and local usage I could trace history, origins, and influences.  The French word for computer, for example, is ‘ordinateur’ from the Latin meaning ‘to order or to organize’.  The English word ‘computer’ has a totally different and more active sense – to compute, to calculate. The French word for software is ‘logiciel’ referring to the internal logic of a program, rather than the English reference to the simple opposite of hardware.

After French I learned Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; and could manage reasonably well in Romanian; and I could compare grammar and usage among Romance languages.  Why, I wondered, was the passive voice so common in South American Spanish.  You never actually dropped an object, it dropped itself with you involved somehow (Se me cayo). Why did the Portuguese feel the need to add a future tense to the present and past subjunctives, or create a personal infinitive which agreed with the speaker?   Why did the early English decide that it was OK to drop most subjunctive uses altogether?Why did Italian have so many intensifiers to adjectives – small, smaller, really small? Why did Russian, for that matter, decide that the endings on nouns should change depending on the number of items referred to – e.g. whether you meant one house, two, three or more?

I noticed that I felt different speaking different languages.  I huffed and shrugged and oo-la-la’d when I spoke French; flailed away with my hands when I spoke Italian, vibrated my consonants and dropped endings when I spoke Spanish in the Caribbean, lisped them when I was in Bolivia, added an Italian intonation when I was in Argentina; wagged my head and used the unusual syncopation of Hindi.  Not only did I adjust accent, intonation, and body language; but I became Malian, Brazilian, or Dominican.  Language has always been for me method acting.  I became the person to whom I was speaking.

I always have a special thrill when a foreign language first comes out of my mouth.  When I finally could speak even rudimentary German, I was excited that I was speaking the language of Schiller, Goethe, and even Adolph Hitler.  A friend of mine at Yale who was studying German, laughed off our questions about why he was learning a Nazi language, an ugly, guttural, harsh, and military tongue.  He told us that he wanted to read us two texts.  In the first, he read with all the frenzied histrionics of Hitler.  He spat out the words, yelled them imperiously, harangued and beat us with them.  In the second, he read with grace and delicacy.  The words were soft and reassuring.  “Who wrote them?”, he asked.  We were sure that the first was Hitler; but the second must be a poet.  “Schiller wrote them both”, he said.

I was working in Kigali, Rwanda, and learned that an Indian restaurant had recently opened, and I decided to eat there.  The food was excellent and authentic, and reminded me of my long stay in India.  I told the manager that I wanted to meet the cook.  He was from Bihar, I was told, and he spoke no English.  That didn’t matter, I said, I still wanted to thank him. 

When the cook came out, wiped his hands on his apron, and namaste-ed me, I spoke to him in Hindi and thanked him for the meal.   I had seen the look on his face before.  He couldn’t quite grasp the fact that a white foreigner was speaking perfect Hindi, acting like an Indian, being an Indian no different from his employer or his landlord in Patna; and there I was in the middle of Africa speaking Hindi to an indentured Indian servant dragooned from his village and shipped 3000 miles to the Heart of Darkness.

I have always wanted to speak Arabic and to learn an African language.  I know I can  handle all the aspirates and glottal stops of Arabic, for I mastered enough Arabic words in Urdu, and I knew that the grammar could never be as difficult as German or Russian.  I chose Bambara as the African language I wanted to learn.  It is the the language most widely spoken in Mali – my favorite African country - and those surrounding; and despite the many linguistic differences of the region, there is a similarity to the sound, cadence, and feeling common to all of them.  I am not so interested in communicating as I am in speaking African, perhaps the greatest linguistic, racial, and cultural transformation of my career.

However, I think I am too old to learn any more languages.  It is not that I am afraid that my brain is not up to it.  I just can’t imagine, after so many years of travel, that I can gin up enough patience and durability to manage Africa.

People say I have a talent for language, and compliment me on my accent, as if that were the key to fluency.  I love language for its complexity and its variations.  I learn the most difficult aspects of grammar early on.  I want to be able to say “If I were able and if you could come, then I might….etc.”, employing all the conditionals, subjunctives, and ablative absolutes available.  I learn to be quick on my feet, to be agile in my phrasing, and colloquial in my usage.  Accent – sounding good – is the least of it.  In other words, I don’t so much have a talent for language as I do for logical analysis and quick thinking, and have a good stage presence.

I have to admit that I was flummoxed by German and Russian; and never made the progress in them as I did in all my other languages. Perhaps I had grown cocky as I moved through all the Romance languages which are similar enough to making the going easy.  I simply had to figure out the essential differences between Portuguese and Spanish; how Spanish words were transformed into Portuguese ones; and how tense structure were formulated.  I got stuck in Romanian because although 70 percent of its vocabulary is Romance-based, the 30 percent Slavic and Turkish always got in the way.  I followed a conversation until Slavic intruded, got lost, and could not recover.  I used my own Rosetta Stone and learned the fifty or so Slavic words that were key to most sentences.  Using this system I was never lost.

German and particularly Russian are perverse.  As I first began my studies of Russian, I  asked a Russian colleague in Kiev to give me the basics of the language – how to say “I go”, for example.  He replied, “How do you want to travel?”.  I said I didn’t care and it didn’t matter.  I just wanted to go.  “In Russian, the verb is different if you go by car, by foot, or by plane”.  I knew I was in for it; and never did manage to get all the tenses, inflections, conjugations, and peculiarities of the language.  When I had the same difficulties with German, an English friend of mine who had spent many years in Germany and was definitely not a linguist, told me to relax and stop trying to figure it out, just listen. 

I know that few people learn languages as well as I do.  Many critics hammer the American educational system.  Even Danish taxi drivers speak good English, they say, so why can’t we learn like them? The answer is as simple as the observation – the Danes and Dutch have learned excellent English because no one speaks their languages, and rather than be isolated in their small lands, they speak the premier world tongue.  Eastern Europeans now speak excellent English, for it has been a sine qua non of integration into the social, political, and especially economic life of the EU.  We Americans have never needed to learn languages.  We have always considered ourselves a self-contained, powerful nation.  If other weaker and less important countries wanted to communicate with us, they could bloody well learn English.

I doubt this will change.  Critics have banged on for decades about our refusal to adopt the metric system, and we still hang on happily to our feet and inches; so there is even less hope that our diplomats, aid workers, and businessmen will do business in anything else but English. In these days of austerity and educational refocus, it is likely that language courses will be the first to go in favor of communications and business.  Language software programs, thanks to big data and advances in artificial intelligence, make decent electronic simultaneous translation possible. 

My hero has always been Sir Richard Francis Burton.  He was an adventurer, diplomat, accomplished writer and ethnographer; and he spoke 29 languages.  He was fluent in so many that he could choose the one that would allow him the best cover when he penetrated the Holy of Holies in Mecca.  He decided that he looked more like an Afghan than anything else, so spoke Pashtu and did just fine.  I will stop at nine (six fluently); but know that at least I understand how Burton did what he did.

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