Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sprechen vous svenska?

Let me guess.  You may be one of those who claim to never have been good at foreign languages, but I bet you know the meaning of each of the words in the title of this article.  Not only that, you probably know which language each is from.

Maybe the reason you are “not good” at foreign languages is that you didn’t care for the way you were taught a particular language.  Maybe you rebelled at the way it was taught and didn’t let it soak in and use it.

I myself have had mixed feelings about each of my language experiences.  For example, I forgot almost everything I learned in high school Latin, but I retained enough of my two years of college French to read books, magazines, and newspapers and to have simple conversations.

The first time it was really important was when I transferred to Europe as a Univac employee.  Supposedly I was to move to Italy.  I got an Italian grammar book and started studying from it.  “Oh, wait, before you go to Italy you will spend several weeks in Basel, Switzerland.”  So, I got a German grammar book and started studying German.

I had all my travel arrangements made for me.  The last leg was a train from Zurich to Basel.  When I got to Basel, there was nobody to meet me.  Where do I go from here on a Saturday?  I knew we were to work at Sandoz, the big pharmaceutical company, and so I looked up Sandoz at a public phone.  When I reached Sandoz the guard spoke only German and French.  As best I could I explained my situation in French.  He said he would look up the Univac people in the computer room.  Within an hour or so one of the hardware guys came and got me.  It was only once I was in the hotel that I met the software guys I was to work with.

I have many anecdotes about learning German (Hochdeutsch) and Schweizer Deutsch, two different languages.  Ja jo! Wie goht’s!

One, I learned enough German to read some of the newspapers and to read the directions on starting the computer - drucken… (push…)

Two, I didn’t learn enough German to get in and out of East Berlin on my own.  The end story is that I had ten East German marks I was not supposed to leave with.  My Swiss companions were in a discussion with the guard behind the counter.  I kept swiveling my head towards whoever was speaking.  Finally, the guard looked at me and said, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  I replied, “Nein!”  That cracked everyone up.  After I put my ten marks in the Red Cross jar, we were on our way out through Checkpoint Charlie.

When I finally arrived in Italy, I slowly learned more Italian.  It didn’t help that our work language was English.  I did start reading Italian newspapers and books and speaking Italian where I could.  I spoke it to my barber and I think I bought my car using Italian.  One difficulty was at some office where I wasn’t getting across to the clerks.  One exclaimed, “Questi stranieri!” (“These foreigners”).  I understood her, but I don’t remember if I made any reply.

After two years in Italy, I requested and got a transfer to Sweden.  Again I bought a grammar book or two and started reading newspapers.  Newspapers are wonderful for learning foreign languages because of the names and events in the news and the large number of similar words.  By my second year in Sweden, I disappointed a small group I was to supervise by stating that we would speak Swedish.  My rationale was they had many chances to speak English, I had few for Swedish.  After a year, many of my colleagues said I spoke “flyttande Svenska” (fluent Swedish), even those who didn’t report to me.  On the other hand, there were many who disagreed.

When I came back to the States, I decided to take German at a community college.  I added a couple more semesters when I returned to Minnesota.  Darned if I can remember much of what I learned in class.

This same phenomenon happened when I took Russian long before I left for Europe.  I still had notions of getting a PhD, and one of the requirements was to have some familiarity with two foreign languages.  I took a year of Russian in summer school.  I did B or better work, but I didn’t enjoy it.  The basis for each lesson was a short conversation we were supposed to memorize and recite with a classmate.  I’ll never forget the first sentence of the first conversation: “Привет Нина! Куда ви идёте?”  “Hi, Nina!  Where are you going?”  I didn’t go back for a second year.  For awhile my Russian handwriting was better than my English handwriting.  I still do recognize many Russian characters, but I have made no real effort to study Russian anymore other than look at the headlines on some online Russian newspapers.

Over the years I’ve put a little bit of effort into learning some bits and pieces of Finnish, Ukrainian, Greek, Dutch, Icelandic, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Japanese.  I’ll finish this with my Japanese joke: “Watashi-wa nihongo-ga wakarimasen.”  I say it well enough that Japanese relatives laugh at the contradiction: “I don’t understand Japanese.”

If you’re over 50 and enjoy languages as much as Mel does, join him for “Jolly Polyglots” in the winter quarter of University for Seniors at UMD.

This was also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-08-28 at