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Learning languages

March 4th, 2004 · 2 Comments

After I commented on Jay McCarthy’s intentions for learning languages , I was glad to learn that he is enjoying studying French, Spanish and Italian simultaneously through the Intercontinental Foreign Language Program at Harvard Square . I tried a class like this once and it didn’t work for me. All it did was leave me frustrated. And dangerous.

But then again I wasn’t writing about cabbages or mushrooms. Perhaps that would have helped. Instead, we read editorials about Ethiopia and Eritrea in French, imitating newscasters, smiling into the camera. Then we’d critique our performances while watching the video. I was a self-conscious sixteen and not prepared to discuss politics when I could barely parle français. Strawberry girls, italian bees and love poems sound better to me.

Learning Romance Languages sounded intriguing despite the intensity. And I came into the class at a disadvantage: I was the only one who had a German background. One girl had studied Latin and Spanish but everyone else had learned French for a few years. So I was constantly playing catch-up. Our teacher, who had studied at Cambridge and Oxford, was brilliant, I am sure, but what he taught didn’t stick to me. We wrote sentences in parallel: first Spanish, then Italian, finally French. It was fun to see how the languages were related. I did enjoy that part: if I was in a spunky mood, I’d write the sentence in German too. He gave us sheets to use, one for each language, with common phrases and words. We had dictionaries: three bulky ones that banged around in my backpack. Also three language books. We didn’t memorize much. The idea was to be able to speak and discuss intelligent issues, as if we were journalists. A grand goal and a different emphasis from my German studies, which had been more focussed on reading and writing rather than speaking. We made lots of tapes. Painful listening experiences! I remember some chatting about maps and how to get places, touristy lingo, but I remember more than that the editorials we read. The class was too intense for me especially with everything else that was happening during high school.

In college I returned to German for a semester and then focussed on science.

Chai Tea Latte wrote about having more than one life.

Don’t you wish you could live a million lives and in this one you are a pathologist and in the next one you are a writer and in the next one you sail the seven seas …

When I think about what I wish I’ve done, other lives I’d like to lead, I think that includes courses I wish I’d studied in college. I still can’t remember why I dropped the one from the Center for World Hunger. I wish I had studied music and art. And I wish I had learned more languages.

When we moved to California, I tried to learn Cantonese. Living in Cupertino I figured was the best chance I would ever have. I borrowed tapes from the library and listened to them while I did the dishes. I practiced speaking sentences. One day, proud of what I had learned, I walked upstairs to where Ted was working and asked him, in my best borrowed Cantonese, straight off the tape, whether he would like some tea. He replied. But he didn’t reply with the response that was on the tapes! He said something different from that canned Cantonese dialogue. And I was left speechless, unable to reply without my taped retort. It became clear to me that teaching myself from tapes was not the way to learn this language. I searched for someone who could teach me, someone who would trade English tutoring for Cantonese, but I didn’t find anyone. Ted and I registered for a community college course in Cantonese, a rare find but one found in Cupertino. However we ended up dropping it. It would have required twelve hours a week, at a time when Ted’s work was intense, he was still a graduate student, and we had other commitments. It was a difficult decision for us to make. We wanted to learn the language.

I also studied Russian with a private tutor, someone I had met through my work at a social services agency. In Silicon Valley many older Russian immigrants need assistance, unable to work despite their professions in their homeland. I thought that speaking Russian could be helpful, given the number of clients we had who couldn’t speak English. However learning a new alphabet was difficult for me, quite an obstacle, and again I found I didn’t have the time it took to concentrate on my studies.

Now if I can speak any foreign language at all, I barely speak German. I don’t remember what I should. I wish I knew someone who could practice with me. It’s the language I grew up hearing on family holidays, my heritage, and I want to pass it on to our daughters. They do have some German children’s books which were gifts. But I can’t translate these simple stories, tales of bunnies and bears, without reaching for the dictionary. Ouch.

From my studies of French, Italian and Spanish, I remember only a few words here and there. Enough to catch a word or two as I read or hear it. Enough to have some idea what is being said. Enough to feel clever. Enough to feel frustrated. Even annoyed.

That year of Romance Language has given me a false familiarity with phrases to sprinkle into speech. I don’t remember much. Wish I could remember more. When we went to Italy years ago for a conference, despite attempts spent practicing with my high school books, I couldn’t speak well enough to buy tickets at the train station.

I get confused, the French, Spanish and Italian merging and mixing in my mind together, the three relatives equally weak. And sometimes I can’t even tell which language has which words: cosi cosa che, perché, porque, quelque, me llama, mi chiama, je ne sais quoi, no habla español, non sappiamo…endlich, ich weiss nicht.

By the way, Jay, whenever you meet the Linguistic Love of your Life, please let Ted and me know so we can pay you back for all this Cutosity and take our turn teasing you: C’est touché, eh?

Tags: blog

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tamara // Mar 4, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the necessity to take advantage of every opportunity I have.

    I was thinking of that while reading your blog today.

    At one time I worked for Berlitz, the worldwide language school. I taught english, did scheduling and accounting. Eventually I even taught Method.

    All the time there was this drive, this feeling that I should be taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity in front of me. The need to keep my ears open and learn broken pieces of language.

    It all slips through your fingers.

    So I can only greet people in half a dozen languages, or maybe ask them how they’ve been. I really enjoy the wealth of people I met, the man I married, and the baby I had in those 2 years.

    Es ist nicht zu spat zu erinnern sich.

  • 2 Julie // Mar 4, 2004 at 10:34 pm

    Danke, Tamara. True, it’s not too late to remember and practice my deutsch. I will try! And maybe I’ll dig out that French dictionary too one of these days (the Italian one went to my sister and the Spanish one to my brother!).