How I Learned Languages

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When I was little my parents hired a private tutor to teach me English and French. She would come over twice a week and spend an hour and a half with me. I was staying with my grandparents at the time, and she would be served with cookies and coffee while she attempt to get me to recite different words and phrases, gauging how much I remembered from our last lesson. I was about three and half, so not much. Also, my attention span was far shorter than an hour and a half, thus we usually spent the latter part of the lesson with her following me around the living room naming the objects I was touching in different languages, or getting me to repeat in translation anything I said. As you can image the conversation was limited, and relegated to things of importance for a three and half year old.

“Unde im sunt sosetele?” “ou sont mes chaussettes?” “where are my socks?” I also learned various colors and how to count. I could not communicate much, but in the event anyone speaking various languages needed me to find socks, I was prepared! Three red socks you say? On it!

Language learning seemed awkward. I was taught things like “quelle heure est il?” or “where is the train station?” but (aside from the fact that at my age then I had no need for these questions) even though I was capable of asking these things, I was unequipped to handle the information once I had an answer.

“Where is the train station?”
“Down the street, turn left at the intersection, follow the road until it curves right, and the station will be on your right hand side.”
“Uh huh, and where are my four green socks?”

And what was the point of all that counting? Under what normal social circumstances was I going to be asked to count to nine hundred and ninety nine thousand?

Then there were the relatives, and their proper terms of identification (some of which I will absolutely never need to know because I don’t have a great cousin twice removed, nor do I know anyone who does). And unless I was inviting a total stranger to my extended family reunion (that would entail much globe trotting), I can’t imagine having to perform any of these introductions –  “c’est ma grand tante du cote de mon pere,” and “this is my great uncle from my mother’s side.”

I did not learn English or French (very well) during those lessons, and later learned English by exposure, namely after moving to the U.S., and then French in extensive courses in high school and college along with more tutoring and self teaching. However, at various times I dabbled with other languages as well, to varied success (read: none).

For whatever reason I was fascinated with Japanese in the early years of high school, and then in the early years of college I took to German. I can say my name in Japanese which actually sounds nothing like Christene. And if the need should ever arise, I can ask a German to “schneiden Sie den Kuchen,” which, if I say properly will sound less like an invitation for cake but rather like a command to duck into the bomb shelter immediately. To this day when I hear any of my German friends speaking in their native language my first assumption is that they are arguing.

Japanese was too difficult because I could not read it. I decided I should stick to languages that use the Roman alphabet, and figured there was no reason to speak a language in which I was illiterate.

I gave up German for two reasons. There were entirely too many verbs, and if two should occur in the same sentence, one of them went at the end. How do you know if you should have two verbs? And which one goes at the end? Then there was the whole business with “because.” Any time I learned new sentences or words I made sure to avoid all causal relationships that would force me to figure out how “because” works. To make sure I couldn’t get it wrong whenever I had to string thoughts together I spoke in choppy non sequiturs. “Schneiden Sie den Kuchen. Es konnte regnen morgen.” See? No cause and effect whatsoever. (translation: Cut the cake. It could rain tomorrow.)

One of the most useful things I learned was how to order coffee in Italian, because one should always know how to order coffee, regardless of location. Especially if you can’t find anything else, like the train station, or your red socks, and you are becoming frustrated.

When I was in grad school (here referring to MA, not PhD) I realized my French was not what it is used to be, so I began reading simple French novels as refreshers (hence all of my francophile blog posts every other night during that period). In doing so it appeared my largest gap was in vocabulary words. I knew how to form sentences, and remembered the verbs, but had forgotten a large share of nouns. I pulled out one of my vocabulary books and began running through the list of words.

As I made my way through it I began wondering where the editors of that book thought I am going. Either I was going to do *a lot* of grocery shopping (pain, fromage, beurre, viande, etc.), or I was going to be hopping trains all over Paris and constantly asking for directions. Or, if I was not doing either of the above, I would be sitting in an ice cream shop apparently committing “blanchiment d’argent,” that happened to be number eleven on my vocab list (money laundering). I understood general paranoia about getting lost in a foreign city and the constant need of knowing what time it was (as much as one could understand), but the assumption that “blanchiment d’argent” was one of the first thing you would need to learn struck me as odd. Needless to say, French too came back to me with exposure, and once I began translating texts I improved significantly. However, I still have not used “blanchiment d’argent” in a real sentence – perhaps I am translating the wrong types of texts.

So if we were to look at all my first phrases and sentences in various languages and string them together (in English)… then… Hello, my name is Christene. Where is the train station? What time is it? Where are my five purple socks? Cut the cake. Bring me a cup of coffee. This is my aunt from my father’s side. I would like half a pound of ham, some cheese, two loaves of bread, and a stick of butter. I want two scoops of vanilla ice cream and some money laundered. It could rain tomorrow.

Obviously I should apply for a job at the local embassy since I appear to have excellent multi-language communication skills.

In the mean time, now that I have spent some time tonight taking a break while being silly and reminiscing about my childhood/early adolescence, I probably should go back to actual research and paper writing.

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