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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Learning Language–Sounding Good And Worrying About The Rest Later

I started my language studies in the 7th grade when I studied Latin with Mr. Steege. He was a genial man who was also the Headmaster of my small country day school.  He was best-remembered for his cyclonic sneezes – great, barking blasts which sprayed from his desk to the corners of the high ceiling.  His desk was in front of a large window which gave out onto an apple tree, a garden of roses and petunia, and the green ball fields beyond. 

One day in late Spring when the windows were open and the warm sun streamed through the window, Mr. Steege sneezed.  It was so powerful and came out with such explosive force that the spray spread from the headmaster over the first three rows of students and to the rafters. The most impressive thing, however, was the rainbow that arced from Nancy Barnes to Robert Coates – a full rainbow with all colors bright and clear. The sun had filtered in through the young leaves of the apple tree just right, Mr. Steege’s herculean spray provided the prism, and a spectacular rainbow appeared. We all oohed and ahhed.

I loved Latin.  Perhaps it was because I was learning the language of emperors and gladiators or because our first text was Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres) and had to do with death and destruction; or because I found the puzzle of deciphering a totally new and complex language challenging.  In any case I continued studying Latin through 12th grade and even considered majoring in classics at Yale.  I never used a ‘trot’, the poor student’s companion which provided a line-by-line translation of Latin texts, and had no difficulty with the most difficult constructions. Grammar and syntax were a breeze.

I started my study of French in the 8th grade.  It was the picture of the CafĂ© des Deux Magots which hooked me.  French would be the means to romantic ends.

After a French exchange student had spent a year with our 9th grade class, we all wanted to go to Paris,   Alain de Miramon wore his hair long, smoked Gauloises, and looked foreign, exotic, and very French. Teachers made a fuss over him, he never had to study, and before long we were all affecting his debonair, je ne sais quoi look.

I was just as good at French as I was at Latin and qualified for advanced placement at Yale.  I was able to skip ahead three years and take all Senior courses.  In my first semester of Freshman Year I opted for “Les Chansons de Geste du Moyen Age – The Epic Poetry of the Middle Ages”. Our first assignment was to read the Chanson de Roland.

Carles li reis, nostre emper[er]e magnes
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.
N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;

Mur ne citet n'i est remes a fraindre,
Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.
Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet;
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet.

I became a double major – French and English literature – and read everything from early courtly poetry to Ionesco.

In a bar in Paris on my first trip to France, I found the toilet but not the light switch.  The bartender heard me fumbling around in the dark and shouted, “Sur le verrou”.  Neither Verlaine, Hugo, or Claudel had ever mentioned that the light in French toilets goes on when you turn the lock, so I patted down the the walls and the door looking for the switch. “If the American wants to piss in the dark”, the bartender said, “It’s no business of mine”. 

Moliere and the troubadours were forgotten, however, and were replaced by beer, baguettes, directions, and food. As I travelled and worked in Africa,I learned how to discuss educational cycles, static heads, cattle-raising, poultry farming, phytate buildup, and media relays.  Most importantly, I learned how to sound good. I quickly dropped my Parisian accent and adopted the sing-song lilt of Cameroon, the rhythmic beat of Mali, and the aspirates of Tunisia.  I learned that if you sounded good people forgave even your most obvious mistakes. 

My other evasive trick was to throw in as many of the most difficult and complex constructions as possible – the imperfect subjunctive, the conditional, and an agreement of the most remote modifier.  I offered my linguistic credentials early and often, and cruised the rest of the way.

On my many trips to Haiti I became friends with French Canadian professionals who were assisting the government – as I was – in education, nutrition, and public health. At first, they spoke Parisian French but when they heard my flawless accent and welter of conditionals and subjunctives, they assumed that my French was fluent, and began to lapse into patois and worse, joal, an archaic, 16th century French mixed with old voyageur backcountry slang and Montreal hip-hop.  Joal was as bad as  the coarse lingua franca of the Parisian suburbs and the camorra neighborhoods of Naples spoken by a Corsican friend of mine.  Pute, putain, chiotte, salope were his only modifiers.

I never formally studied Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian; but became easily fluent in them.  Thanks to Mr. Steege and my early studies of Latin, I knew how to deconstruct and disaggregate languages; to decipher and remember the essential constructions that make them work at the most basic level.  To go, to come, to speak; to consider, to wonder; and to think.  May I, can I, should I? If, then, when, how; today, tomorrow, yesterday; up, down, under, above.

Armed with a personalized grammar complete with essential verbs and adverbs, adjectives and most nouns were unnecessary.  People filled in the gaps having understood the context in which we were speaking and the linguistic environment.  They offered words and suggested nuances.  I could easily build the language on this simple grammatical foundation and on attentive interaction with others.  At the same time I mastered speech, accent, rhythm and body language.  The basic grammar made me understandable, and my perfect R’s, LL’s, and U’s, encouraged people to take me seriously.  The special twists and turns of each language came later – the devilishly difficult cases and tenses of Russian and German, the intensifiers of Hindi, the curiously Latinate subjunctives of Portuguese.

On one of my first days living in Ukraine, I began my simple structuring of Russian; and asked a colleague how to say “To go”.  He asked me how I intended to go. The verb changed depending on my mode of travel – on foot, by car, or by air.  I found that the case of nouns changed depending on the modifying number  The ending on one of something was different from two of the same thing and still different for more than two.

I was flummoxed by Russian and German and could never seem to make much headway in either one; and I could not understand why.  Hindi, which I learned without much difficulty had a reverse word order like German, but somehow mastering both the perverse cases and the complex and unpredictable word order of the language was too much.  Perhaps I was getting too old for learning language; or I had cruised through the very similar Romance languages and assumed that Slavic and Germanic languages would be just as easy.  Once I had learned Latin and French, Portuguese, Italian, and even Romanian were no problem at all.  I used my own Rosetta Stone for Romanian, learning the key Slavic words which always blocked the fluidity of the predominate Latinate vocabulary and got in the way, and before long I was fluent; but Russian and German still frustrated me.

Friends who had learned German as their first foreign language said that they had had no trouble.  It has so many cognates with English, they said.  Water and wasser was a good example.  Yet these cognates were relatively few, and one never knew when they were coming.  The word for pasture, for example, is weiden.  Dog is hund, a cognate of hound,. but how was one to anticipate that link?. Guessing based on English would get me nowhere.

Before going to Brazil for the first time, I engaged a young woman from Rio to chat with me informally so that I could practice my grammar, learn more vocabulary, and get the sound and rhythm of the language.  I knew that many words in Portuguese were the same as those in Spanish, and so when I found myself searching for the Portuguese word, I used the Spanish one.  “That’s Portunol”, she said, the common and irritating mixture of Spanish and Portuguese that most beginners resort to.  Yet from the point of view of acquiring language, it makes good sense. Get your point across and worry about the details later.

People who do not speak foreign languages or who have had a tough time with them are often impressed by language ability.  “You must have a good ear”, they often say; but that is the least of it and the last of it.  Being able to master one language let alone three or four requires a mental discipline, logic, and agility that goes far beyond accent and intonation.  To deconstruct, decipher, and then reconstruct and express a new and totally unfamiliar language requires special abilities and skills.

One day while vacationing on the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic, I met two French colleagues.  They spoke French to each other, Spanish to the manager of the hotel, and English to me – concurrently.  I was amazed.  It was an agility I could only imagine; but when I tried it, I was tongue-tied.  I knew French far better than the Spanish I was learning, but could not retrieve even the simplest French phrasing.

I later learned that such a multi-lingual ability has only to do with the completeness of language acquisition.  Once a language has been learned fluently, it stays in some region of your brain, etched on your mental hard drive. My two French colleagues had learned French, Spanish, and English fluently and therefore had no problem speaking all three together.  I have heard that three’s the limit, but I have never had the occasion to try out four.

Through all this the theatrics have been the most fun. Asking me where I am from is the highest compliment, and one disproportionate to my ability.  The listener knows that I am not an American for I have erased all traces of flat A’s and nasal twang; but cannot figure out if I am French, Bolivian, or Italian.  There is something about my speech which is not quite right, not entirely native, but then again, maybe.

The show never lasts long, for soon enough despite my ablative absolutes, future subjunctives, conditionals, subtle intonations and Gallic shrugs, mistakes give me away – searching for a simple word, getting an idiom not quite right, stuttering over a diphthong. But it is always fun while it lasts, a kind of circus event, stepping onto center stage, singing an aria.  Language more than anything is fun, a plaything, a challenging puzzle, a toy.

When I learned that the Russian word ‘to drink’ was ‘pita’, I immediately and surprisingly understood the Indo-European nature of the language. ‘Pita” means ‘drink’ in Hindi, a language derived from Sanskrit, and the similarity was due to the commonality of the two languages within the Indo-European grouping.

The oddity of the future subjunctive in Portuguese tells something about the culture and its insistence on time and uncertainty.  The frequent use of the passive voice in Latin American Spanish suggests a certain cultural avoidance of directness or even responsibility. The many levels of comparatives and superlatives in Italian says something about Italians’ style and cultural enthusiasm. 

My linguistic odyssey is over for now.  I thought that I would learn one more language. Being able to sound good in Bambara would be a real trip; but my foreign travel is over, and as much as I liked Mali, I doubt I will return.

Language has been a source of cultural insight, a disciplined exercise of the mind, a fun theatrical party, and an insight into human communication.  N’est-ce pas?

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