Tuesday, May 15, 2007


In America, people think I am something of a linguist because I have some ability to speak in more languages than I have fingers on one hand. In other parts of the world, I am just an American who can't speak the local language very well, and is not really fluent in anything but English, and how lame is that? Having spent a lot of time living and working and traveling in other countries, I am exquisitely familiar with the humiliation of not being able to say what you want to say, or, worse, saying something that is exactly not what you wanted to say.

An example:

When I lived in Hungary in the mid-90s, I arrived with pretty good pronunciation, a fairly good intuitive sense of the language, atrocious grammar and a vocabulary that was all but useless anywhere but my grandmother's kitchen. This was, in a way, even worse than speaking with a bad American accent, because a) what I could say sounded Hungarian, b) the phrases I did know were correct and idiomatic, and therefore c) whenever I did mess up, people would not leap to the conclusion that I was in fact a foreigner (especially since those were fairly thin on the ground in those days, but) assume that I was deranged. And Hungarian, as a language, offers unparalleled opportunities of making a fool of yourself. In what other language could a simple toast turn into a celebration of your drinking partner's entire anus with a fatally shortened vowel? I ask you.

Anyway, one day I was at the library with my roommate, studying. On the way out you had to present all of your books to the checkout lady, whether or not you were checking anything out; no high-tech theft prevention here, you just left your bag at the door and showed her all your books as you left to demonstrate that they were your own. As I waited, I chatted with my roommate, in normal Hungarian, probably not making any immediately noticeable mistakes. And, as one does, I mentally plotted what I would tell the checkout lady. This is my own book [not the library's.] Ez a konyv--this book-- a sajat konyvem. This book is my own book. Well, I could shorten it and say, "This is my own." Ez a sajatam. Oh, no, wait. Postpositions like those, elide the vowel, it shortens to "Ez a sajtam." Doesn't it? No, no, it doesn't. See "fatally shortened vowel, above." That's why the checkout lady, who had already heard my seemingly normal Hungarian, was a bit taken aback when I proudly showed her my book and announced, "This is my cheese."

Ah, the memories.

What made me think of this, you ask? This. Read it and weep (in a good way.)

The only way to learn a language is to make a fool of yourself, early and often. Take it from me. I've been there.


jasmin said...

*HOOT!* [wiping tears from eyes]

And I haven't even read the article you linked to, yet.

k. said...

Good thing you weren't required to offer a toast. ;-)

Cecilia said...

We used to live across the street from a Vietnamese family so we all picked up bits and pieces of Vietnamese. They had a young kid so we learnt things like: don't run, sit down, lie down, horse, etc.
My Dad (trying to impress the Vietnames woman at the Asian grocery store) told her to lie down. He was aiming for "Thank you."

kata said...

That is hilarious. Laughed my head off! The baby now thinks I'm very, very strange.