30 December 2009

Babel - or the art of staying sane as a polyglott

You know you learn to many languages if...

- You speak at least two languages - in the same sentence.
- You ask yourself things like, what is "deja" again in French?
- You start doing stenography in character-based languages because it's so much faster.
- You own all the volumes of Harry Potter books multiplied by the number of languages you speak.
- Spanish and Indonesian sounds the same and therefore "dan" keeps popping into your head instead of "y" and "dia" instead of... what is it again?! "El(la)"?
- You say "Bom" but 98% of the sentence is Spanish.
- You can have a political debate with someone who only speaks Portuguese while you only speak (broken) Spanish and you both understand each other!
- In Indonesian class, when you can't think of the verb in Indonesian, if in doubt, try German then image how a Dutch person would say it and maybe you're right!
- You're annoyed that when you have finally got yourself not to confuse a map with a folder (since the German word for folder is "Mappe"), the Indonesian "map" (sic!) becomes a folder again! Argh!!!

"I only speak English!"
I remember a time when I was at the first meeting of the year of the infamous and popular SOAS world music choir. It usually attracts 100+ students to gather weekly to learn new songs from different parts of the world, always in foreign languages (African, Bulgarian, Swedish, Maori...), by repetition in several voices. The instructor invited us to introduce ourselves to each other by going round and saying our name, where we're from and what languages we speak (let's hope nobody discovers this as recruiting ground...). A lot of people were from the European continent but also from some parts of Asia or British. It makes for an interesting survey. Most spoke on average three languages, usually their native, English and another foreign language. Perhaps since it's SOAS, there weren't a few who spoke four up to seven languages, especially among the South Asian members of the choir. Among the British, half "only speak English". The other half either spoke one or two continental languages or a clearly SOAS-related language. One English person emphasised defensively that she spoke English sign language.

"J'en ai sudah un" and "Je suis masih di toilettes" - French/Indonesian:
The lady whom I was trying to converse with from the Institut Francais must have thought I had a logopaedic predicament for I spent an awful lot of time chewing out sentences, spending several seconds on thinking about what I wanted to say before I said it and how to structure the sentence accordingly when all I needed to do was to blurt like I would normally do in English or even German (is blurt transitive?). That's when I realised that Indonesian syntax has firmly colonised my brain and firmly overridden well-trodden pathways, like a snow caterpillar the traces of skis that have carved down the piste in hundreds. I also had to fight against (loud!) voices in my head prompting to say things like "Merci, mais j'en ai sudah un", because I just could not recall the word for "already" in French, strangely enough. On the other hand, sudah is a nearly ubiquitous word. It's like having to add, "I do/I don't" if an English speaking person asks you a yes/no question. In Bahasa Indonesia (BI), the answer to the same question would more often than not require you to indicate whether you have "already done" sth or "not yet".

I was forcing each French phrase out of my brain as Indonesian language requires advance thinking of what you are going to say, for example due to different affixes and other changes depending if the word is transitive or intransitive. Another thing to consider before speaking a sentence is shifting object and subject around and altering words if you speak in object focus form which for some reason "is what is done a lot (by) Indonesians". I am starting to get the feeling how tough it must be to learn German as a second language. The elderly beautiful lady walking with an air of classic elegance who was supposed to gauge my course level listened patiently and quietly while in my head, I heard the loud groan of a polar icebreaker laboriously crunching its way forward - inch by inch.

So I go to this class reunion/Christmas party and start talking to my friend's Brazilian boyfriend who only speaks Portuguese and a little English. It was the first time we got to really chat ever since I arrived so I asked him a lot of stuff about Brazil, as I have never been and pretty much all I know about this beautiful country I know from my friend's adventures while there and perhaps a little about labour rights and markets from the Enlazandos Alternativas summit back in Vienna a few years ago. My chance to brush up the gaps in my knowledge and learn something new about another place in the world! After like half an hour of me asking questions about Brazil in broken Spanish (and I guess, improvised German sign language every now and then) and him replying in Portuguese, I learned to my astonishment quite a lot about labour syndicates and Brazil's relationship to its neighbours and development and realised suddenly that there was a round of classmates staring, fascinated.

I also had another multilingual experience at my family's Christmas party when I spoke to my uncle's Indonesian girlfriend in BI who nearly dropped the phone when I started "Selamat tahun baru! Saya bisa berbicara bahasa indonesia!" (Happy new year! I can speak Indonesian!) which my mother - never before having heard much Indonesian before - jokingly interpreted, "Baha sa Indonesia?" (in Tagalog, "It is flooded in Indonesia?")

Mnemonics rule!
It's not that hard to learn a non-European language, especially if there are loads of loan words you are already familiar with. You can always use friends and family for help - I for example have a Dutch friend staring at the lamp in his bad quality fridge wearing a skirt who then takes an envelope out of his bag. He remembers he has to drop by his office to put it in a drawer before he goes to the cinema (lampu, kwalitas, kulkas, rok, amplop, tas, kantor, laci, bioskop; in order of appearance). Meanwhile, my Filipino auntie is preparing for church on Sunday, puts on her best shirt takes some cheese from the table and a volleyball from the closet and puts both into the car (gereja, Minggu, kemeja, keju, meja, bola, lemari, kereta).

Learning BI is challenging but I enjoy it a lot. It's much easier if you screw the class textbook and write your own grammar. I would love to publish the first(-and-a-half) paedagogically modern language book (there is one book which is very good already but costs £40!) which will surpass all the old-fashioned 1950s-1980s books in revenue and kick them off the shelves and mejas for good! I guess if I don't envisage a career in teaching, then that's an incentive for me to push my Indonesian language skills!

And for those of you who think they are fluent enough in German, check out this video where endless German euphemisms live up to the language's reputation!

P.S. Sorry about missing special characters in the roman languages, I can't be bothered copy/pasting them right now!

3 courageous comments!:

kat said...

Love this post :) - the video is so true, too! Btw, did I tell you my brother got Harry Potter in Russian? Now we have the books in 5 languages :).

Anonymous said...

hola minha wunderschöne pretty princess!!!
c'est un piaccere lhe escrever!!!
huuhuhu ja languagegespracheidiomalingua mixxtureeee!!! uauauauaaaa
schön deine nachricht zu lesen ...hihi!!
aja und ps: kannst du mir bitte deine tel.nummer nochmal per mails chicken.. mein händi wurde gestern gfladert... vl adresse auch gleich??
kisssessssssssssss (muitos)

Heidi said...

@Kat: Why Russian?! So you have them in E,F,German, Russian and... SK or Latin?!

@*ma: ich hab absolutely keine ahnung what you are writing there! :D da homma den sprochnsalod! und des haendl ham's a gstoin! uiui!!!
je suis desolee sekali!!! ;)